For the best part of a quarter-century and across at least a dozen albums Drive-By Truckers has built a name. And that name is Quality. That name is Integrity. I like to say that they’re – somehow – getting better with each and every album and though that’s perhaps not 100% accurate (there was an early 00s high water mark and then a slight slump, a return, and though I loved albums like English Oceans they will figure lower down the list for other fans, and so I guess it’s open for anyone to decide whether they peaked in 2001, 2005 or 2016). Still, I’m amazed by the quality-control of this band. They both always have something to say and interesting ways to say it. That’s about all you could hope for with a band more than two decades into its run.
The Unraveling is the group’s latest – and it’s been the longest time between drinks. The brilliant American Band which I firmly believe to be the best and most sophisticated Truckers album was released just ahead of Trump being voted in. It was the closest thing to a salve for me on the night of the election. I sat in dejection and disbelief and the only thing that comforted me in any way was the sound of some of the Truckers’ very best songs up to that point (Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn, Once They Banned Imagine, Surrender Under Protest). A song might not direct the change you hope for but it can place a seed in your heart. It can help to settle your mind. It gives voice to challenge. And American Band did all of that. And proved a tall order for The Truckers. They toured. They received rave reviews. And then slumped towards a writer’s block.
It’s been three full years and change. Well, nowhere near enough change of course…which gave them something to focus on.
Patterson Hood (particularly) has come out firing on The Unraveling. Mike Cooley only contributes two songs to this album where previously it always felt close to 50/50. Still he injects his trademark mix of urgency (Slow Ride Argument) and wise, witty rejoinders (Greivance Merchants). And his songs always swim in pools of Neil Young and Tom Petty influence. Some wag recently described him as “a redneck Confucius” and I doubt you could get a better call than that. He’s integral to the band as a harmony vocalist and guitarist of course at any rate.
His writing contributions here also, as always, give counterpoint to Hood. The Truckers’ greatest developing strength is its writing. There have always been strong songs in this band and a few points of view to place or different angles to come from but certainly their albums across the 2010s will grow old gracefully, and still with a bite, in much the same way that the songwriters themselves are doing.
That Trump and his evil influence would bear the brunt of a new Drive-By Truckers album was never in question. But a quick skim of the back cover tells you straight away: Armageddon’s Back in Town, Thoughts And Prayers, Heroin Again, Babies in Cages, 21st Century USA…these are the topics then: Corruption, Gun Control, The Opioid Crises, Immigration, Small Town Collapse.
These are songs that feature narrators that sound as sad and desperate and deflated as you can easily guess from the titles.
In the one-two of Thoughts and Prayers and 21st Century USA, Hood has written as thoughtfully, poetically and beautifully as he can – of a human crisis, his four-minute documentary snapshots are profound, damning and ultimately encouraging. Where there’s thought there’s hope. Where there’s heart there’s energy. Where there’s anger there’s a different view. It’s bleak as all fuck but in some ways Hood is continuing the work of novelists Jim Harrison, Denis Johnson and Willy Vlautin (both his songs and books).
The Unraveling is a triumph just for these two songs. The cleverness and sadness of 21st Century USA, which is basically J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy rewritten in perfectly measured rhyming couplets, manages to assess people working hard for shrinking pay (with women working just as hard for even less) and the temporary distractions that are slowly killing us, such as the salvation Amazon offers that can be ordered on your phone through to the pain pills and drinks that offer some sad solace as sleepwalking wage-slave strangers meet late at night in bars “and bang each other like crashing cars”. These calloused hearts need rest and find love hard to receive, almost impossible to give. But the sad refrain is that “no one remembers how it got that way”. And in the brutal examination of this song’s characters, dripping from every line, is the shrewd assessment that there’s still the hope of riding it out for a quick fix. America is broken. And there’s no quick fix. And the man that promised it is burning a hole through the center – is making it harder. But a MAGA hatful of hope just might bring a new promise.
Thoughts and Prayers suggests the need for “a filter, a pressure valve to keep from blowing up” to counter the “white noise in my head”.
Patterson Hood’s rage is palpable – always measured.
Musically it gets gritty too – to offset the deceptively simple country balladry of the songs I’ve focused on above, there are the bar-room rockers the band has traded in for years (Armageddon, Heroin) but there’s something new here in the sinewy grind of Babies in Cages, in the piano and strings that guides the album in via Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun. And finally in the nearly nine-minute closer, Awaiting Resurrection. Fittingly for an album that opens with worry for the end of this world, for the heartbreak of cold immigration policies and a complacency around school shootings, Hood closes the record by singing, “Is there an evil in this world? / Yes there’s an evil in this world” he repeats that before pointing out that said evil, “ creeps up from behind you when you are least suspecting”. Again, the guitars on loan from Neil Young swirl and circle, tempered, calmer, measured.
The full impact of the songs on this album, their construction, the writing, the placement – of the words and the ordering of these sentiments – creeps up on you too. But it’s welcome. It’s crestfallen, dark, quite possibly – and maybe literally – depressing. But there’s that now-familiar balm. This band is good. This band cares. Its songs are such a vital strength in this world.
So, yes, they’ve made their very best album. Again.
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