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An Elegance of Purpose – “Let’s Look Back” from Caleb Nichols on Kill Rock Stars

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Some records don’t let you hide. They may evoke the usual quotient of joy and exuberance, their songs triggering the standard range of alternating responses from punching the air while skittering around your kitchen to quieter head-nodding moments of reflection to outright thrashers threatening to tear the whole damn house down, but inside their deepest, most elemental recesses, inside their rhythms and changes and the sinew of melody a spirit lurks that tracks you, holds you in its focus and ain’t never gonna let you go. Those are, quite naturally, the best records, the ones we ten to cling to and they to us and Let’s Look Back, Caleb Nichols’ latest released Oct. 13th on Kill Rock Stars, lyrically, hook-wise, everything-wise, is set to join that roster by, we’d reckon, unanimous consent.

Like an emo/power-pop amalgam that ennobles both those terms so far beyond their oftentimes cringeworthy expectations as to create its own Nichols-specific genre (one that, were it actually so and thereby spawned imitators, would never produce an album better than nor more powerful than the ur-text at hand), Let’s Look Back dazzles by virtue of how the seeming ease of its eleven constructions dallies with the obvious intricacies gleaned from closer inspection. Even though anyone even passingly familiar with the process knows it’s absolutely never the case, the work heard here nonetheless presents as if it arrived out of the ether fully formed. Whatever one’s impression in that regard notwithstanding, the only thing we can say for certain is that Nichols’ heart is on this record’s sleeve whether you can see it there or not. The honesty herein is more than simply noteworthy, the honesty on this album brims.

Swimming initially into view against the surge and shimmer of strummed electrics, “Christmas, California” would seem to encompass the shaky emotional paradox at the core of this record – and, come to that, at the core of the overall human experience as well – when, in the opening stanza, the singer asks (and answers) “who said you should never look back? I think a liar said that,” a line that would appear to support the theme suggested by this album’s title were it not for the doubts that subsequently pour forth further down the lyric sheet, casting a shadow or three over the famously ‘joyous’ proceedings of a home-f0r-the-holidays moment, albeit all deftly done in a way that welds the nuanced to the obvious with such craft you can’t see the joins. A succinct mini-masterpiece that couldn’t more acutely capture that unique but ever-so-usual mix of celebration and utter drag every family yuletide gathering seems to bring, the track all on its own is a tidy accomplishment – not least for the depths of lived experience clearly reflected within (crucial to Nichols’ work and identity is a background that includes an abusive childhood inside a troubled family dynamic – his father AWOL when not in prison – which only made coming out as gay in small town California all the more challenging) but is also, handily, an apt introduction to the ensuing tide of tracks that, insofar as concision and craft are concerned, ably follow suit.

A brash and animated pop rocker, “Demon Twink” sounds as if it wrote itself which, seeing as songs never actually do, is always a sign of inveterate songwriting talent, an impression buoyed by what follows it. Thematically one of this record’s central tracks, “Absolute Boy,” ringing and chiming and powerful, hits targets almost too painful to contemplate, Nichols’ lyrics fearless and unsparing as they detail the attempted quashing of a child’s spirit (“before you hit me, before you clipped my wings/I was the absolute boy, I was him absolutely“), the irony of its deceptively irresistible bass-driven groove only driving the gist deeper into the listener’s heart. While a tour de force of sorts, it’s not the only one here. As a for-instance or two…


“Limn” meets us right out the gate with a rainy day moodiness – and indeed we did note the nod to Elliott Smith in the very first line – that is soon layered over, however gently, by a punched-up irrepressibility which, as is pervasively clear pretty much throughout Let’s Look Back, would appear to be a Nichols trademark, suggesting as it does that, yes, melancholy may abound all around us but resilience is never impossible. A cathartic dash through power chords and barely restrained pandemonium, “Albatross” presents as a piece of essential advice for any of us but especially those bottled up by any variety of hard held emotional hurt, the track’s title derived from the clever-wise, one-of-a-kind couplet “Everything you thought you lost/wear it like an albatross;” the lovely, saturnine and keyboard-rich “Wicked” (might that be a mellotron we hear?) not only fulfills its album closer role by being appropriately reflective with enough mystery obtaining to leave us yearning for more, it also boasts one of the flat-out best lines we’ve heard all year: “See I’m trying to fill this empty space/with new tattoos and glitterwave.

A record of multiple – often conflicting – moods, all uniquely linked by an elegance of purpose, Let’s Look Back is nakedly human and resolute, brave and vulnerable in equal measure, touched with a minimum of irony (just enough if you’re asking us) and, as much as anything, a piece of solid evidence that Caleb Nichols has grown to become one of this country’s finest, most nimble songwriters both in the present and within the context of the vaunted past. There’s a mark being made here and it would pay to pay attention.

[order Let’s Look Back in all the formats, plus check out the formidable quartet of musicians that helped bring this beauty to life, here]