It would be understandable if, in year 25 of the band’s existence, the Drive-By Truckers took their foot off the gas and eased into their legacy as one of the most pivotal Southern rock bands of our time. Well, understandable to most anyone who isn’t Patterson Hood or Mike Cooley. As Hood himself put it, “While a quick glance might imply that we’re picking up where 2016’s American Band album left off, the differences are as telling as the similarities. If the last one was a warning shot hinting at a coming storm, this one was written in the wreckage and aftermath. I’ve always said that all of our records are political but I’ve also said that ‘politics IS personal’. With that in mind, this album is especially personal.”
And it’s the manner in which Hood and the other Truckers take the current state of affairs so personally and make the extra step of translating that into their own personal lives is part of what makes this latest album such a powerful piece. It’s also a bit ironic that a band that’s been around this long and reached the level of acclaim, appreciation, and admiration that they have obtained would be creating, arguably, the most urgent and important music of their careers now all while running the risk of alienating some of their long-standing fans, not musically but ideologically. But at this point in history, and nothing on this album states this stronger than the track “Thoughts and Prayers”, Hood and company don’t care if you take umbrage with their message because they’re not about to compromise after watching the toll recent years have taken on people they know and those they write about.
That this song is probably tied with “Armageddon’s Back in Town” as the biggest ear-worms on the record doesn’t feel accidental. It’s a frustrated album. Frustrated with self, society, and the effort it takes just to get through the news of the day but in its own way that’s kind of what the Truckers have always been about. It’s the acknowledgement that whatever life you’re living, it ain’t easy brought into particularly stark relief on “21st Century USA” delivering lines like “with Big Brother watching me always, why must I always feel so alone”. That kind of ability to give so many people something to identify themselves in, in ways that some iconic rock star everyman from New Jersey just can’t touch when it’s down here on the levels of your Wells Fargos and Taco Johns.
But, as with any Truckers record, it’s not just about the lyrics of Hood and Cooley. It’s about an entire band that pushes a hefty load musically. Southern rock imbued with soul, blues, and funk unafraid to do things like hook a washboard up to an amp and wah pedal on the unambiguously titled “Babies in Cages” or somehow finding the common ground between the gospel influences of a lot of the South’s best music and the desolate and desperate tones of Willie Nelson’s highway songs on “Grievance Merchants”. Drive-By Truckers refuse to be anyone but themselves especially on the latter track as Cooley laments and lambasts, in equal measure, the obvert ways American society is amplifying the ignominious plight of the angry, young white man.
But it’s the finale that serves as a show-stealing shamble that takes this whole thing and gives us that perspective of just how this unraveling has played out in front of our very eyes. “Awaiting Resurrection” is a track bathed in an exhausted perspiration from the menial task of simply surviving the chaos of the last four years. In the closing moments, over this raw and tangled dirge of guitar and keys, Hood delivers the coup de grace.
“Guns and ammunition
Babies in a cage
They say nothing can be done,
but they tell us how they prayed
In the end we’re just standing Watching Greatness Fade
Into Darkness… Awaiting Resurrection.”
Indeed, in the 25th year of the Truckers, they’re still absolutely unafraid to speak what’s on their minds and play what’s in their souls, occasionally leaning on friends when applicable. As Hood himself says in the album’s liner notes, “My family is strong. My band has never been better. I still have my health. We all still have a lot of fight left in us and nobody is backing down from the shit.” If any band out there is qualified to diagnose what ails us in one album in 2020 and, perhaps, get us pointed in the right direction it’s the one led by the dude who managed to “grow up liberal in Alabama” with all the dualities that invites into a person’s life.
We’re definitely gonna need more than “Thoughts and Prayers”.
The Unraveling is available now and can be purchased here.