Drive-By Truckers are pretty damn pissed. Not “drunk pissed”, but “pissed pissed” – thoroughly miffed at the odious political climate that hangs heavy over the United States in the run up to the presidential election; utterly disgruntled at the startling rise of ill informed prejudices held by an unthinking public, brainwashed by the embarrassing media circus of the far right. Not for nothing is American Band the first Truckers album since the band began 20 years ago not to feature the vibrant, colourful illustrations of the unmistakeable Wes Creed on its sleeve.
The mood is bleaker – much bleaker – and instead we have merely a subdued grey image of the national flag at half-mast. Few bands, however, have ever been better at political angst, and the truth is that it seems these grim, unsettling times have revitalised them into making their best album in well over a decade (though I ought to acknowledge that they have released some fine records in the interim too).
The deep rooted distrust and resentment of the music on offer here may not be immediately apparent to the most casual of listeners. Mike Cooley is no stranger to the Jagger aping blues rock jam of ‘Kinky Hypocrite‘, having adopted such a persona before on the likes of ‘Three Dimes Down‘ and ‘Gravity’s Gone‘, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s party time when this one plays, while sparring partner Patterson Hood’s ‘Sun Don’t Shine‘ seems on the surface to be a kind of soulful ballad feasibly inspired by his late friend and R&B musician Eddie Hinton. But it doesn’t take much of a genius, once you’ve sat and paid proper attention to the lyrics, to recognise the sorrow, the anger, and above all, the exasperation of these most poetic of world weary observers.
There is still room for playfulness though; Cooley, after all, is a master of making prose that seems far too long for a musical passage somehow fit as snugly as a kitten in an airing cupboard. He also manages to make those words sound tremendously moving, even though there’s not really any good reason why they should be. The stupendously brilliant ‘Filthy And Fried‘ is a perfect example – “Bottles falling in a dumpster and a stale smell rising though a sickening summer haze/To the rhythm of a boot-heeled hipster cowgirl’s clunky sashay of shame.” Cooley twists the words so magnificently that I would argue that this is possibly the best opening gambit I’ve heard to a song since the start of the millennium.
In complete contrast to the gritty realism of American Band’s lyrics, the melodies served up are often bright and pretty, the defiant ‘Surrender Under Protest‘ coming across like the best song REM never wrote, and the venom spitting rage against racism, the NRA and all its followers being partially veiled, first by the rock and roll acumen of ‘Ramon Casiano‘ and later by the quite devastating ‘What It Means‘, which poignantly informs us that “Barack Obama won/And you can choose where to eat/But you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.”
There is even room for the affecting ‘Baggage‘, Hood’s rather shaken reflection upon the suicide of Robin Williams, but even that is a well grounded attack upon the mindset of a certain demographic of the American public who berated the star as “selfish” or “cowardly” after his untimely passing.
Drive-By Truckers are as intelligent and astute as ever then, perhaps even more so, for this is a jaw-dropping album by a consistently remarkable band who are as relevant today as they ever were.