Album Review: The Drive-By Truckers are back with their 12th album, an obvious follow-up to their politically charged ’16 release, “American Band.” If anything, on The Unraveling, songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have taken their inspiration right from the headlines as they write songs of protest over “Babies In Cages,” the useless “Thoughts and Prayers” that politicians offer up after mass shootings, and the fruit of the opiod crisis, a rise in overdose deaths (“Heroin Again”). What appears to be unraveling here is the American dream, as witnessed in “21st Century USA,” which describes an economy where men are “working for not enough, at best, women working just as hard for less.”
Musically, the Southern Americana/rockin’ Truckers settled into their current incarnation in 2012, after losing Jason Isbell back in ’07. Cooley and Hood, the remaining original members, have been joined by drummer Brad Morgan, multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez, and bassist Matt Patton. To capture the energy and chemistry of their concerts, the band travelled to Memphis to record live in the happily haunted studio confines of Sam Phillip Recording Service, opened by the iconic rock & roll producer once he’d outgrown his original historic Sun Studios. They reportedly recorded 18 tracks in a week of round the clock sessions, that were later winnowed down to the 9 tracks for the album by their long-time producer David Barbe, eschewing modern digital technology to record on 2-inch, 16 track tape, very old school, and there’s a warm feel that emanates from the grooves, guitar amps and keyboards. They’ve said, some of the leftovers from these sessions will likely show up on their next album.
The record opens with a love song to Memphis, “Rosemary With a Bible and a Gun,” which recalls an early trip there by Hood and Cooley that started out in “promise” but ended in “despair.” Cooley’s songs, “Slow Ride Argument” and “Grievance Merchants” address the underlying psychology of the fading dream of greatness often sold to young men that turns too easily into anger and resentment when things don’t work out they way the dream led them to believe.
In “21st Century USA,” Patterson sees the hollow promise of chain stores and neon signs that suggest light but lack warmth, while the raw and painful results of our us vs. them politics includes “Babies In Cages” at the border, victims of addiction (“Heroin Again”), and the deadly reality of one mass shooting after another. “Thoughts and Prayers” cries out against the keepers of the status quo: “The Powers That Be are in for shame and comeuppance/When Generation Lockdown has their day/They’ll throw the bums all out and drain the swamp for real/Perp walk them down the Capitol steps and show them how it feels/Tramp the dirt down, Jesus. You can pray the rod they’ll spare/Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.”
Drive-By Truckers may be finding their most direct political voice later in their career, but it resonates with poignancy, having learned the lessons of a previous generation of protest songs like Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” and Neil Young’s “Ohio,” that your lyrics increase in significance in direct correlation to the quality of your music. While there’s no doubt that they’re still preaching from the same text that fueled the angry protests of “American Band,” they continue to rock with enough energy and creativity to keep the choir singing along. Strong instrumentals dominate throughout — whether it be Hammond organ swells, fun injections of violin, washboard, and other insturments, the soaring guitar leads in the rockers, or weeping guitars of the 8-plus minute closer, “Awaiting Resurrection” — all intended to help the strong lyrical medicine go down. And, while things may be looking pretty dire on the political front (“there’s an evil in the world”), Drive-By Truckers are holding out in the end for the arrival of new possibilities: “I hold my family close/trying to find balance/Between the bad shit going down/and the beauty that this life can keep injecting.” No doubt, voices loud in protest and great rock & roll music, offer up more than enough beauty to sustain us while we wait and work for a bright new day.
Key Tracks: “Thoughts and Prayers” / “21st Century USA” / “Babies In Cages”
Artists With Similar Fire: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit / Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young / Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt
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– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb