To go calling any one album by Drive-By Truckers their finest would be a disservice to a catalogue with no holes, no black marks, no misfires. It’s solid-solid-solid, hints of R.E.M and the band Wilco used to be, traces of filthy blues-rock era Stones and writing that is steeped in Steinbeck and Springsteen, that steps up from the pages of William Faulkner and out from the films of Alexander Payne. Or at least is a continuation of the Elmore Leonard tone and tales.
You might arrive at the band’s sound for the beautiful, sympathetic tales like When Walter Went Crazy (one of several top-notch songs on the band’s latest album) but you’ll stay for the tight-but-loose country and rock sounds by this country and rock band.
English Oceans isn’t the best Drive-By Truckers album – but that’s only because it’d be like naming a single favourite Dylan or Springsteen song. But fucking hell this record is good. Really good. From late in the record cuts like First Air of Autumn, reminiscent of Tom Petty’s fine Wildflowers, back to the opener with its smart lines about how the “Boss ain’t as smart as he’d like to be/But he ain’t nearly as dumb as you think” and “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on/Don’t mix up which is which” you can come at this album from any angle and you’ll walk out happy, saloon doors swinging behind ya most likely. Closer, Grand Canyon is a sonic road-movie, with a big Steve Ferrone-does-Levon Helm loping groove from the ever-solid Brad Morgan. But earlier in the album it’s more obviously a state of rock – When He’s Gone kicks off like a Crazy Horse track – like it could have been the best thing on Ragged Glory if it wanted – and Primer Coat makes you realise that Uncle Tupelo’s sound will live on longer with these Truckers than it ever did with either Wilco or Son Volt.
Both Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are in fine writing form here – maybe a little competition between the two now, a little more than usual, no “George Harrison” in the group to offset their approach/es. They’ve done good at any rate. Once again.
Whether it’s a bit of a Neil Young croon, or a Wayne Coyne-does-country there’s plenty of variations on the worn-and-forlorn and there’s so many songs here that burst with heart.
There are so many songs like The Part of Him where you’re hooked on the hypnotic groove, the intricate weave of guitars, lush organ sounds to flesh out the tune too – and then, only then, when you’re deep inside the song you realise that it’s yet another tune about yet another beautiful loser. And you’re back to it with fresh ears, listening this time for the words. Or, as on Made Up English Oceans, there’s the gallop of country music past, made over with ghostly overtones of the present, and possibly the future. And inside all of that spits a fury-lyric of disdain, sits a song of considered rage, as Coley and Hood are expert at summing up the disillusioned, disenfranchised, disengaged and disgruntled.
Hood remains the master of turning bleak and tender in on each other to create the perfect sardonic charm to his lyrics. “You’re either someone’s, or you’re nothing/God must be a lonely man” – that’s how it tells it on Grand Canyon, that’s the worldview right there. And on When Walter Went Crazy we feel like we’re hearing the calmed-down version of Powderfinger; the song that Neil Young might have written at the piano straight after cradling his guitar and kissing off the anger from his earlier song. So much baggage around the characters in these songs – and yet the music remains lean. Angled. Perfect. Goddamn they’re something special alright. Huge worlds within the music here. And it’s all so fucking effortless in the sound. Extraordinary.
So yes, you are in fact listening to the best Drive-By Truckers album. Once again….