Artist: Lord Huron
Album: Long Lost
In Brief: I really want to get swept up in this record’s stroll down a blurry Memory Lane, set in an ambiguous place and time. But despite it having the same sort of indie folk/country trappings and high-concept storytelling as the band’s early work, Long Lost is a huge step down in terms of both the energy level and the imagination that went into the arrangements. They spent a lot of time here geeking out over specific guitar tones and the sonic minutiae of how a unique studio space makes a record sound, all of which are technically intriguing but which will be lost on the casual listener. What that leaves is a rather languid story of lost/forbidden love that often calls back to, but ends up being dwarfed by, earlier songs they’ve written that are very much in the same vein, with only the framing story of a bootlegged radio broadcast making it in any way distinctive.
Lord Huron is a band that has always had a fascinating preoccupation with the relationship between music and the passage of time. They started off with a rather lofty concept on their 2012 debut LP, Lonesome Dreams, which wasn’t immediately apparent to the average listener, but which added a lot of depth to the experience once the effort was made to dig into it – each song corresponded to an imaginary novel in a series that was deliberately presented out of order, with the causes and effects of the characters’ actions sometimes only coming to light several songs after the fact. Its lead character also pursued – and quite possibly achieved – the goal of living forever, only to find it a rather hollow pursuit in the end. It was one of my favorite albums of the 2010s, a record that feels incredibly nostalgic to go back to even though I discovered it rather late, in the final months of 2019. There was a lot going on that appealed to me about the band’s mixture of indie folk, country/western, and occasional worldbeat influences, and as those songs wriggled their way into my memory, they seemed to possess a special ability to masquerade as something I’d known for much longer than I actually had. (Shoot, they even managed to prove that I have something in common with Kenny Chesney of all people, who was apparently as enraptured with the iconic opener “Ends of the Earth” as I was, considering his decision to cover it on one of his own albums back in 2018.)
They followed suit with a similar (though not quite as focused or arresting) set of songs on 2015’s Strange Trails, the most popular of which, “The Night We Met”, came at the very end of the record, expressing a longing to go back to the innocence and newness of a budding relationship. The song was prime soundtrack fodder that got them quite a bit of attention, ultimately leading to a major label record deal and the creation of their third record, Vide Noir, which was a bit of a stylistic swerve from their first two. Sporting influences from psychedelic rock, garage rock, and even bits of R&B and soul, that record had its own distinctive vibe, being inspired not by dusty Western towns or far-off mythical islands, but the band’s hometown of Los Angeles, and how the landscape seemed to change under cover of night. For a band that started off very clearly following in the footsteps of indie acts like My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, and Calexico, it seemed like a maturation toward finding their own unique blend of sounds that would make their influences a little less obvious. But that doesn’t seem to be a lesson that the band carried forward, considering how their 2021 release Long Lost seems to feel like a retreat to a point further back in time than where they originally started out.
Now if you were to read the press and interviews surrounding Long Lost, you’d probably be quite intrigued by what the band is trying to achieve here. This time around they’ve gone so far as to concoct a fictional character who is the deejay of an old-timey radio program (his name is “Tubbs Tarbell”, though it never comes up on the album itself), and use that as a framing device for a series of (supposedly) recently unearthed lost recordings from an obscure country/western singer. They’ve stopped just short of going the “Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines” route here, in the sense that they aren’t actually crediting the album to a fictional artist. But like a great many of their songs on previous albums, it’s very easy to imagine that they bring to life the thoughts of shady and perhaps untrustworthy characters who can’t bring themselves to be fully honest about their feelings or intentions, rather than representing the viewpoints of the songwriter himself. It’s a neat trick that allows lead singer Ben Schneider to explore anti-social, obsessive, and sometimes downright troubling thoughts without coming off as a creep in real life, and in many ways it borrows from the tradition of “outlaw country” singers from long before he was even born. The trick is that it’s not nostalgic for any one distinct era. Lord Huron’s goal with this record is to trick the mind into thinking it’s heard this somewhere before, in a long-forgotten chapter of the listener’s life, but to make it difficult to identify exactly when this music could have come into existence. This no doubt required a lot of digging through old records, some famous and some obscure, tweaking their guitars and their recording equipment until they captured some vague reflection of those vintage sounds, and basically being as obsessive about the details of the recording process as the characters in their songs are about the women they’ve fallen in love with. This is all pretty fascinating stuff… in theory.
In practice… well, I can’t help but be more than disappointed as track after track on this album floats by and I’m mostly left thinking “Yep, that sounds like the Lord Huron I fell in love with, just with less cinematic grandeur and less of a reason for me to stick around and dig into the intricacies of the story.” To put it another way, the cross-genre pollination doesn’t lead to the same sort of vivid soundscapes I had come to expect after hearing their earlier albums. For all of the effort that the band went into arranging strings, getting the right amount of rusty soul and twang out of their vintage guitars, and dropping in the occasional bit of exotic instrumentation, a lot of it just ends up feeling like a formless mess of sad, sentimental mush when I listen to the finished product. Have you ever listened to a record after seeing other critics obsess over minute sonic details that they happen to find delightful, and come away with it thinking most of the stuff they noticed was either barely audible in the mix, or even if you did notice it, it didn’t do much for you? That’s me throughout much of this album, and it’s frustrating, because I’d love to see Lord Huron get some wider recognition, but this doesn’t seem like the album that’s gonna do it. I can understand what they’re striving for, and I definitely hear the pangs of longing in songs that express regret, anguish, or uncertainty over roads not traveled and relationships taken for granted from so long ago, that it’s a bit fuzzy at this point exactly when these events all happened. I guess I just wish I felt more surprised and disoriented by this record, given its goal of detaching the listener from a distinct time and place. I want to experience the excitement of rediscovering memories buried deep in my brain that I hadn’t thought about for ages, and despite trying to keep an open mind and absorb this nearly hour-long album one small morsel at a time, this record just isn’t achieving that particular goal for me. At some point a band has to do something distinctive and risky and forward-thinking, rather than settling for vaguely nostalgic and hoping that sustaining that mood alone will carry the listener through a hodgepodge of mostly downbeat material. I really want to love what I’m hearing here – and I still have bright hopes for Lord Huron’s future, considering how much imagination that put into everything they do – but I’ve got to admit, Long Lost feels like a swing and a miss to me.
1. The Moon Doesn’t Mind
The opener is really just a snippet of a song – we fade in on some hazy ambiance (more on that later) before there’s an abrupt shift in sound, like someone moved the needle on a record player, and then we get about a minute of Ben singing a simple verse accompanied by acoustic guitar. If you find yourself wanting to sing “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam…” here, you’re not alone – the melody is deliberately evocative of “Home on the Range” and cowboy songs of that nature. It sets up a lonely mood that will permeate much of the album, and then there’s some brief applause, and then another abrupt shift leading us into the first “real” song.
2. Mine Forever
This is the song that most easily captures my attention on this album – and I have mixed feelings about it being right up front. What the band’s got going for them here is quite a bit – a wistful, engaging lead guitar melody, a moody chord progression that shift from major to minor and back again at the exact right moments, an elegant string section that swoops and dives along with the melody, and the overall “cinematic” quality that makes a lot of their best stuff stand out. Ben Schneider’s lead vocal is at once dreamy and forlorn, as he wishes a fond farewell to a lover whom he insists will always belong to him in his mind. I’ve mentioned in the past that his lyrics can sometimes come across as possessive, controlling, or even downright creepy (see “Wait by the River” for an especially unsettling example) but he gets away with it because the songs are purported to come from the voices of fictional characters in made-up books or movies. This one lands on the more sweet and sentimental side of things, even if it makes you wonder why they’re splitting up if he feels so strongly – presumably the desire to belong to each other forever is merely one-sided here. But that’s part of the sad beauty of Lord Huron’s work in general – forbidden and unrequited love are always a big part of the story. Here, it just feels like we’re jumping right into the middle, or perhaps even the end, of the story, not yet having the chance to understand the nature of this relationship before its dissolution. I still love the song despite that confusion, but I think it could have made even more of an impact later in the album. To further add to the feeling that this song is dredging up distant, half-forgotten memories, there’s an ambient outro during which a woman can be heard whispering in French – which reminds me a bit of the “follow the emerald star” interlude between two songs on Vide Noir.
3. (One Helluva Performer)
Here’s where we hear the voice of Tubbs Tarbell for the first time, as another record skip leads us to a brief snippet of him commenting on the song (“Was that French or something?”), before queueing up the next one. He seems to be introducing someone new when he comments that “This young fella comin’ up is one helluva performer”, which leads me to believe that these songs aren’t all intended to be from the same point of view, even though in real life they’re all being performed by the same band.
4. Love Me Like You Used To
Picking up at more or less the same breezy tempo as “Mine Forever”, this song is driven by the steady strum of an acoustic guitar, another confident lead melody from the electric, and a string section that just seems to float on by rather than doing much of anything distinctive. It’s a decent arrangement, one of those songs with a toe-tapping rhythm to it that you can easily sing along to, but I feel like they could have done more with it. The narrative in this song actually squares pretty well with what we heard in “Mine Forever”, which leads to some slight confusion about whether it’s the same character or a different perspective. The person who walked out on the relationship clearly regrets it here – he dreams of the one he still loves every night, and even goes so far as to say “I curse the goddamn day that I went and left you”. That actually feels like a bit of an anachronism, as there’s no way you’d get away with “goddamn” on one of those old-timey radio shows, though I guess that just adds to the whole mystique of not knowing what time period the story is set in. What’s most intriguing here is the bargain he tries to strike in the chorus: “Love me like you use to, and I’ll praise you like I should.” Is that a Fatboy Slim reference? Now we’re getting really anachronistic.
5. Meet Me in the City
The record’s first ballad has a much more languid pace to it, with a drunken stumble to its rhythm and a slightly bluesy, slightly twangy tone to the guitar that puts it somewhere between “spaghetti western” and “film noir”. I’m getting all sorts of callbacks to past Lord Huron material here – the dark alley vibe that it’s got going on almost makes me think it would have been a better fit for Vide Noir, since it’s more about the city than the country. But Strange Trails had a track called “Meet Me in the Woods” that this could very well be a counterpart to, and at one point a guy asks his ex-lover to “put on the dress you wore the night we met”, another likely reference to a track from that same album. Even without knowing any of their other songs, one gets the impression here that the woman who left this guy is now married to someone else, since he asks her to leave her “ball and chain” at one point, basically setting up a forbidden affair that she’s likely not as keen on the idea of as he is. With the right arrangement, I could imagine getting a tingle up my spine from the eerie atmosphere of this song, but honestly the production values are rather strange here. The drums in particular seem “watery” – there are lots of muffled cymbals, and possibly some bleed-over from the other mics in the room. It has the effect of making the recording sound like something more low-fidelity from an older era, which I know is intentional – but I can’t help it if I prefer my “fi” on the “hi” side.
6. (Sing for Us Tonight)
This is literally just five seconds of Tubbs Tarbell introducing the next song.
7. Long Lost
The title track gives us a bit of a thematic break from the songs that led up to it – this one’s still about wanting to meet up with a lover in a special place, but it’s more about taking it easy and soaking in the beauty of that forested place far away from the mad rush of city life, than it is about the loneliness he feels without that person there. He even seems to find a little solace in getting lost, as if he’s able to exist outside the normal flow of time for as long as he’s there. (I’m fond of hiking, so I can relate.) Musically, this one has a strong country/western feel to it (especially with the deep male backing vocals that chime in here and there), and the slow, steady guitar strum gives it kind of a Calexico vibe, but with strings instead of horns. And those strings… oh my God, do they lay them on thick here. It’s almost to the point where the strings drown out any instrument being played by the actual band (except for maybe the piano, which plays a sequence of “twinkling” notes that are actually a really nice touch), and I wouldn’t necessarily mind that if not for the fact that the strings have already been fairly prominent on most of the album thus far, so it kind of ruins the surprise. That may be why a lot of this album blurs together in my mind despite the songwriting and melodies generally being pretty strong – the instrumentation is consistent almost to a fault. Still, as title tracks go, this one at least gets the job done in terms of setting a memorable scene and giving the rest of the record a central point to orbit around. It’s a piece that I appreciate more for its sustained mood than for a melody or instrumental part that gets stuck in my head, but I can already tell it’ll be a decent soundtrack pick for my next drive up into the mountains.
8. Twenty Long Years
We’re about at the album’s midpoint now, and this is where is enters a bit of a lull for me – the songs are marginally interesting, but I don’t get that excited about any of ’em. This song is a slow, sad lament from a man looking back on two decades of life that he feels like he’s mostly wasted on drugs and booze. He now realizes the irreversible damage he’s done to his health, his reputation, and most importantly his relationships, and the performance is soaked in so much regret that it pretty much checks all the boxes for an old “cry in your beer”-style country or folk song. Nothing really makes my ears perk up here until the bridge section, when there’s a nice little steel guitar interlude – that’s a sound that my ears have come to love even though it’s become a bit of a cliché in languid country ballads at this point. I won’t object to a cliché when it’s well-used, I guess. The band is certainly self-aware about the intended setting of this song – during the last thirty seconds, it fades into the sound of a crowd of people drunkenly singing along as if the recording of it were being played from a jukebox, which is then abruptly shut off, much to the chagrin of the bar’s patrons.
9. Drops in the Lake
Putting two long, slow ballads with similarly syncopated time signatures back to back is definitely a recipe for getting them confused in the listener’s head. I like the atmosphere of this song – and there’s actually quite a lot going on here, instrumentation-wise – but I have to admit, its surroundings don’t do it a whole lot of favors. Listening carefully, I’m picking up on a lot of sounds that are individually interesting – some chimes or maybe glockenspiel, possibly a ukulele, the high-pitched wail of a female opera singer just to add to the song’s ghostly feel, in additional to the expected acoustic guitar, baritone guitar, strings, and light percussion. In terms of how dense the arrangement is, I suppose you could say this rivals some of the slower tracks from Lonesome Dreams, particularly “The Ghost on the Shore”. I like the mental picture that it gives me, of a man standing alone on the shore of a huge lake, with a storm coming in, the wind and rain making the leaves on the trees rustle, and the surrounding scenery slowly vanishing into the fog. But thematically it feels like a bit of a retread of ideas we’ve heard Lord Huron explore many times at this point. Pining for a lost love, wandering off into the forest, wondering if you’ve wasted too much time to go back and turn things around… these are all serviceable ideas that add to the emotional impact of a song, but track after track of this starts to yield diminishing returns.
10. Where Did the Time Go
Here we have yet another ballad in 3/4 time, with an even slower tempo… though it turns out to merely be another interlude/song snippet, similar to “The Moon Doesn’t Mind”, but without the record needle moving gimmick. It almost feels like a benediction, with its well-wishes expressed to the listener: “May you laugh and sing your life full/May you learn the reasons why/May you live until you die.” This might actually work as a postlude at the end of the album, but as a short intermission between songs, it’s not doing a whole lot to compel me to care.
11. Not Dead Yet
The electric buzz as this song bleeds in from the last one is a welcome change of pace. Lord Huron has always straddled the line between indie folk and indie rock, but this record has been way more on the folk side, with this being a rare upbeat track on the album that actually lets a distorted electric guitar come out to play. Pacing-wise, it’s still fairly laid-back – this is one of those tracks that seems up-tempo in comparison to the rest of the record, but put it next to something like “Time to Run” or “Until the Night Turns” and it would clearly be the tortoise in the race. But I’m OK with that. I like how the strong, steady strum of the acoustic and the hazy atmosphere of the electric work together here – it fits well with our protagonist’s realization that he needs to get his shit together, stop moping around, and let the people he loves that he abandoned all those years ago know that he hasn’t completely faded into oblivion yet. The song plays out like a conversation that he has with himself in the mirror, after realizing what he’s let himself become over the past few decades: “You’ve got holes in your clothes and booze on your breath/You look like hell and you smell like death.” Not recognizing the man he seems before him is the wake-up call that he needs to start turning things around.
12. (Deep Down Inside Ya)
This twenty-second interlude seems to be a fragment from some sort of radio drama at first, which then cuts over to a distorted bit of Tubbs Tarbell commentary about how hearing two people singing together makes you feel something deep down. He’s obviously referring to the upcoming song, which is a duet.
13. I Lied
Unfortunately, this duet with Allison Ponthier doesn’t make me feel much of anything. It’s exactly the wrong move to make, pacing-wise, just when “Not Dead Yet” seemed to be turning a promising corner after all the dead weight in the album’s midsection. I like the idea of this song – basically it’s a man fessing up to his wife that he made promises he couldn’t keep when he married her, anticipating her devastated reaction, and then finding out when she responds that her heart wasn’t really in it either. Normally Lord Huron just gives us the male perspective in these sorts of songs, or when a song is written from a female character’s perspective, it’s still Ben Schneider singing it, so it’s not obvious without delving into the liner notes. This is genuinely sad stuff, and it should come as an emotional gut-punch, but as I said about “Mine Forever”, the story being told out of order and/or from different perspectives ends up working against its ability to earn the audience’s sympathy. Other than the two voices – which I have to say dovetail with each other quite nicely – the song doesn’t have a whole lot else going for it, just some sparse guitars and unobtrusive strings. I feel like the band’s rhythm section is really being underused on a lot of these songs.
14. At Sea
We have yet another short interlude next, a few brief verses in lieu of a full song. This one’s at least marginally interesting due to its use of the steel guitar to give it sort of an island vibe – you know how you’d hear it in some of those old cheesy beach movies set in places like Hawaii? Yeah, sort of like that, but slower and more contemplative. Basically our protagonist has chosen to cut himself loose from society and just drift about for a few more years – this is either a flashback to before the events of “Twenty Long Years” and “Not Dead Yet”, or a regression to the same dreary lifestyle after a failed attempt to turn things around. There’s not a whole lot here, but it segues pretty seamlessly into the final song.
15. What Do It Mean
As grand finales go, this one kind of drops the ball. I admire its intent – it’s a moment of reckoning when a man realizes all he’s been striving for in life ended up being for naught, and all he’s left with is memories of happier times in his life that he can never actually return to. It would be a pretty decent “pass the Kleenex” sort of moment if this track didn’t seem to simply drift by without much in the way of peaks and valleys. I want my heart to gallop when this thing reaches its peak and then feel the bottom drop out when it plunges back in the valley of despair, but the delivery gives it more of a mundane feeling, as if to say “Oh well, I guess that’s then.” As in “Drops in the Lake”, there’s a lot going on here if you listen closely – steady percussion, some lovely bits of piano, possibly a harp, nice layering of the strings and background vocals, etc. But the only true heartstring-tugging moment comes at the end, when there’s another fourth wall break similar to the end of “Twenty Long Years”, where the song bleeds back into the radio broadcast and Tubbs Tarbell wishes us all a fond goodnight, the audience chiming in with him as he signs off with the phrase “May you live until you die!”, which at least verifies my hunch that the same sentiment at the end of “Where Did the Time Go” would have been a good note to close the album on. They definitely put great care into the details here, and as the song slowly fades out on the strings ruminating over the same chord progression we’ve been hearing for the last five minutes, I’m at least satisfied with the sense of closure it provides. Except… wait. It’s not actually over. This album is nearly an hour long, and we’re only at the 45-minute mark.
16. Time’s Blur
So, when I first looked at the track listing for this album on its release date, I figured Lord Huron must have done something really ambitious with the last track, if it was 14 minutes long. Turns out the joke was on me, because this is 14 minutes of pretentious, ambient nonsense. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure it took a lot of effort to put this sound collage together. As I understand it, it’s made up of different instrumental parts from all across the album, slowed down or otherwise distorted so that they’re only vaguely recognizable. Thus far, despite making my best effort to listen to it carefully, I’ve really only picked up on one or two chord progressions that maybe kinda sorta remind me of an earlier song, but I definitely haven’t had an epiphany where I’m reminded of a poignant moment from a song that I really connected with, and the reprise does anything to move me emotionally. So the end result is basically one the title describes – one big, long blur that lasts the entire length of the track, occasionally seeming like it’s going to fade out and segue to a different idea, only to inundate you with more of the same. I guess this might make some thematic sense if the end of “What Do It Mean” represented a man’s entire life having been a performance that ends as the curtains fall, and now the afterlife turns out to be neither heaven nor hell, but just a formless void haunted by the vaguest of memories of things he either loved or regretted about his life. It’s a profound idea in theory, that is incredibly boring to listen to in practice. This is the most egregious example of Lord Huron’s biggest problem as a whole – their ideas are often far more interesting than the execution of those ideas. I suppose I can’t be too hard on this track since it’s clearly separated from the rest of the listening experience, and you can easily skip it if you’re not in the mood to spend 14 minutes contemplating everything you’ve just heard and/or struggling to stay awake. In the olden days before streaming was a thing, this probably would have been a hidden track on a CD, and then I’d have to deal with the annoyance of the last actual song being only the first five minutes of a track that ran for over twenty. Still, I’d be giving the album huge minus points for something like this if it showed up anywhere but at the end.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Moon Doesn’t Mind $.25
Mine Forever $1.75
(One Helluva Performer) $0
Love Me Like You Used To $1
Meet Me in the City $.75
(Sing for Us Tonight) $0
Long Lost $1.25
Twenty Long Years $.75
Drops in the Lake $.75
Where Did the Time Go $0
Not Dead Yet $1.25
(Deep Down Inside Ya) $0
I Lied $.50
At Sea $.25
What Do It Mean $.75
Time’s Blur $0
Ben Schneider: Lead vocals, guitar, harmonica
Mark Barry: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Miguel Briseño: Bass, keys, percussion, theremin
Tom Renaud: Guitar, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: