Artist: Drive-By Truckers
Album: The Unraveling
In Brief: It’s surprisingly short for a Drive-By Truckers album, but it’s also much more focused than I’m used to from these guys. The politically charged lyrics and caustic criticism of the status quo graft incredibly well onto the band’s gritty alt-country style and their slice-of-life songwriting approach. This is the first time in a long time that a Drive-By Truckers album hasn’t either bored me or thoroughly grossed me out – when I do feel disgust, it’s because I know they want me to.
When music junkies like me look back on the year 2020, I wonder what records will stand out to us the most in terms of having helped us get through the global pandemic known as the Coronavirus – one of the most uncertain, stressful and downright scary experiences that probably most of us will ever have. Many of us who live in America might have thought our country had it bad in the late 2010s. Man, we had no idea. This isn’t a topic that I plan to shoehorn into every single album review I write while I’m here at home, locked down under (what seems to us Americans, at least) extreme quarantine measures, trying to find the most productive ways to spend my time. There’s a lot of music I’ll remember for providing a temporary escape from all the things that are overwhelming to think about right now – the Tall Tall Trees album I wrote about recently being a good example. But there’s some that I’m sure I’ll remember for confronting head-on some of the fear, anger, and disgust that I’ve been feeling, even if the songs were all written before the artist had any inkling of just how dire things were gonna get. Right now it’s the alt-country mainstays Drive-By Truckers who have absolutely nailed those feelings, by way of the variety of systemic issues they bring up on their latest album, The Unraveling. It’s not an easy listen by any means, but it sure as hell as been a cathartic one.
My history with the Truckers is more than a bit spotty. They’ve been around since the late 90s, though I wasn’t personally aware of them until the late 2000s, first having my curiosity piqued by their 2006 release A Blessing and a Curse, and then later stumbling on their sprawling 19-song monster of an album Brighter than Creation’s Dark and realizing it was a record that spoke to me way more often than I would have expected for a band singing in beer-soaked and tobacco-charred voices about the seedy underbelly of American life in the Deep South. The material was sometimes grim, sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes deliberately filled with the dull malaise of folks having given up on their dreams with lives doomed to go nowhere (or at least, nowhere good). Obviously I know this doesn’t represent the entirety of life in the South – these were observations about likely fictional, or at least highly stylized, people whose misfortunes and misadventures were symptoms of larger problems with society as a whole. I’m sure that a lot o the band’s discography is about these things, but the band pretty quickly lost me with a string of releases in the early 2010s that ranged from dull and forgettable to so grim and graphic (particularly their 2011 “murder ballad” record Go-Go Boots) that I found myself wanting to bleach my brain to eradicate any memory of it. I lost track of the band after that. Apparently they got a hell of a lot more political on their 2016 release, American Band, which at some point I should probably go back and her for myself. That last part’s probably the most important development in the band’s identity since I last heard from them.
The band’s longest break between albums led to the early 2020 release of The Unraveling, which is definitely rife with political commentary, and which is one of their shortest albums at only 9 songs long – literally less than half the size of the tracklisting of the album that first got me into the band. But quantity doesn’t always equate to quantity, and in the Truckers’ case, the brevity turns out to be a boon, because there’s not a single track on this album that I would consider bad, or even forgettable. A few of the band’s most urgent rockers are here – and the Truckers can lay those guitars on thick when they really want to. But there are also a few nimble acoustic pieces, and somber ballads and slow jams that do their part to make sure the heavy topics that the band’s two singer/songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are singing about really hit home. Longtime fans might pine for the day when Jason Isbell, now an acclaimed solo artist in his own right, was hanging around with the band, and I’ll even say as someone who got into them just as that era had ended that I miss the sense of variety brought to a few of their records by Isbell’s ex-wife Shonna Tucker, who played bass and who contributed a few of her own songs here and there. It’s been pretty much the Hood and Cooley show ever since then, but these guys are stronger songwriters than I remember either of them being, even if both of their voices are acquired tastes. A leaner line-up these days doesn’t mean they’ve skimped at all on their signature sound.
What’s funny about my assertion that The Unraveling is a very political album is that it doesn’t really get into it until about a third of the way in. The first three songs out of nine are more what I’d call vignettes – different slices of life as down-and-out Americans struggle to make ends meet. They set a sort of backdrop for the much larger issues to be discussed later in the record, because by and large, these people are the sort of “everyman” whose votes politicians keep trying to capture, but who by and large have started to feel forgotten and even resentful, which in part has led us to the caustic mix of elected official attempting to run the show in Washington today. Actions – and sometimes inactions – taken by the Trump administration haunt the last six songs on the album, even if the most polarizing President in modern history is never directly named or vilified. It’s notable that the Truckers have made their Southern-ness such a core element of their identity, and yet go against the grain of much of that part of the country in terms of their critiques of both the causes and effects of Trump being in power. It’s a viewpoint that’ll probably sound rather liberal to a lot of their hard right-leaning neighbors, but I think there’s a growing number of voices even among Republicans who have been disquieted by some of the events of the last few years and unhappy with how the current administration has handled it. It’s not for me to ascertain how left or right these guys are. They’re simply observers sounding alarm bells – and those sirens are blaring, and uncomfortable to hear, and they need to be.
So buckle up, folks – it’s not gonna be a long ride, but it’s gonna be a bumpy one, and some arguments are likely to ensue.
1. Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun
The opening track is… puzzling. Both in terms of what it’s about, and why it’s at the beginning of the record. A moody piano ballad with a sad but restrained string section isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Drive-By Truckers, though it certainly stretches my perception of the band in good ways. Patterson Hood actually manages to sound more smooth than abrasive, which catches me off guard, as he sings this mysterious tale of a woman driving town to town with the two titular objects – it’s like she’s some sort of a roving preacher or prophet with a grim message, and yet people fall under her spell and end up following her anyway. I’d consider it an iconic image of America due to the uneasy mix of Christianity and violence implied by a person carrying both a Bible and a firearm, but the fact that she’s a woman kind of bucks the cliche. This song feels ominous to me, like there’s something weightier about it that I should understand but don’t, due to some cultural reference(s) that maybe I’m just not picking up on. I like it, but wish I could get a little further in terms of making sense of it.
2. Armageddon’s Back in Town
Ah, there’s the scratchy Patterson Hood voice I know and… uh, tolerate, I guess. After all these years, it’s not the barrier to entry that I might have once considered it, but with all of the things this song has going for it that I think would make incredibly accessible to curious new listeners, the vocals are definitely the one area where I’d be like, “Yeah, you just have to get used to it.” And no offense intended to Mr. Hood – his performance perfectly fits the down-and-out lyrics about a man driving from city to city, just trying to keep his hustle going, and being met with breakdowns and other miserable failures to the point where he starts to blame himself and feel like the very embodiment of doom and gloom – almost like he’s Eeyore with a raincloud constantly following him around. Despite painting such a grim picture of a Midwesterner fallen on hard times, the band does a ton of heavy lifting in the instrumental department here, leading off confidently with one of their meatiest riffs, returning to it often, and making damn sure that everything from the vocal melody to the thick guitar chords to the piano punching every quarter note contributes to the overall stick-in-your-head quality of the song. Drummer Brad Morgan threatens to steal the show at the end with his mad drum fills that ensure the song comes scrambling across the finish line. This is easily the best thing I’ve heard from the Truckers in over a decade.
3. Slow Ride Argument
The first of two songs written by Mike Cooley is up next – his voice is the more “traditional country” of the two, though it’s noteworthy that Hood gives him an assist on the chorus. I love hearing these two trade vocals back and forth as much as I love hearing their twin guitars tear into a song like this. We’ve got another strong rocker on our hands here, though this time, instead of rolling into town after town like some sort of agent of doom, the lyrics seem to be urging a man who is mad as hell and on the verge of doing something violent to instead leave his house, get his ass to the bar, knock back just enough tall ones to take off the edge but not enough to get raging drunk, and take his sweet time to think things over before returning home. It’s implied that his wife or whoever he’s pissed at is ready to get physical as well – at least that’s how I interpret the line ” baby’s a hornet’s nest”. So this could well be a plea from a friend to keep the situation from escalating to domestic violence. Ain’t nothing that can’t be worked out with a few drinks, a listening ear, and a slow drive to nowhere in particular on a long, dark night (presumably with the friend in the driver’s seat).
4. Thoughts and Prayers
Here’s where they really start to get into it with the political stuff. I’m not normally a big “three chords and the truth” guy, but sometimes there’s a lot to be said for an unfussy arrangement with a simple acoustic chord progression (well backed up with a bit of electric guitar, piano, and a brisk drum beat to keep things moving, in this case) that puts most of a song’s weight on the lyrics. They just have to be really good lyrics. And I think the Truckers have written one of the more memorable protest songs of the Trump era with this one. The vivid imagery in the first verse will definitely get your attention, with the cell phones lighting up among a pile of dead and wounded bodies lying on the ground after a mass shooting. My first thought was the Las Vegas shooting back in 2017, since that specifically happened during a country music festival, but a slew of recent school shootings and other highly publicized random killings could easily come to mind as well, depending on where each of us passed the threshold between being sickened and startled anew by each report of such an incident, and began to grew jaded and start tuning them out while assuming probably nothing was going to change. Hood’s still mad as hell here, and he doesn’t mince words – though being a country band, I think it’s clever how they might be setting an unsuspecting listener up to expect an endorsement of God, guns, and vigilante justice. Between the scratchy-throated chorus of “Glory Hallelujah, you are in our thoughts and prayers!” and the righteous anger he describes welling up inside of him, you might think this is headed for the sort of vindictive ass whoopin’ Toby Keith or Charlie Daniels might salivate over. Then he throws a curveball with an unexpected mention of a Flat Earther being proven deadly wrong in the bridge. Wait… what were we talking about again? Turns out it’s a metaphor for faith that is meant to illustrate that just believing something hard enough isn’t going to make it so. That gives the third verse an extra sting when Hood finally gets around to describing the sort of retribution he has in mind: “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain/It hurts me that I have to look away/The Powers That Be are in for shame and comeuppance/When Generation Lockdown has their day.” Basically he’s saying (and fair warning, I’m about to get up on my soapbox here) that prior generations, with their poor choices of leaders that have led us to either gridlock and inaction from our government, or straight up selling out to commercial interests that keep the flow of firearms unabated while sizable campaign donations are guaranteed in return, have failed our children, and when they grow up and gain the right to vote with their traumatic memories of these events in mind, they’re not going to stand for this. When I see the words “Generation Lockdown”, I can’t help but draw a parallel to what we’re going through now, with a delayed government response to the Coronavirus outbreak in America necessitating that we all go to extreme measures and basically remain locked away at home for God knows how long in order to prevent an overwhelming number of deaths that likely could have been avoided without going to such extremes if our President hadn’t straight-up ignored the advice given to him much earlier on in favor of keeping up appearances so that he could continue to brag about how well the economy was doing on his watch. In a nutshell, having people in power who care more about money, their image in the eyes of the press, and keeping their richest constituents happy while only paying lip service to the rest of us, isn’t just causing a huge political divide in this country, it’s leading to thousands of unnecessary deaths, all while the Religious Right blindly sings the praises of their supposed agent of God, while thumbing their noses at anyone trying to present either scientific facts or pleas for actual decency and compassion toward their fellow human beings. It’s sickening. So it’s cathartic when Hood gets to the end of his final verse and he bitterly sings, “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.” Hey look – there’s nothing wrong with thinking and praying. But don’t use that shit as a smokescreen for not doing anything tangible about a problem. Think hard about it, pray if you’re so inclined, and then DO SOMETHING. Preferably something that involves not electing tone-deaf narcissists who only care about themselves.
5. 21st Century USA
This is more of a low-key acoustic track, with humbler instrumentation that fits the lonesome small-town vibe it’s going for. I hear a mournful fiddle here and there, and for some reason I’m imagining a bit of slide guitar though I don’t think there actually is any – it just seems like the sort of thing that would fit the mood. Anyway, I kinda thought this song was just pointing out the obvious at first. We have all these modern, middle-class businesses like KFCs and AutoZones rubber-stamped across a lot of these towns, where there isn’t a whole hell of a lot to do because the people living there are struggling to break even, and don’t exactly have a lot of disposable income. The phrase “Folks workin’ hard for shrinkin’ pay” comes up a few times, and Hood also notes the gap in wage equality that makes this suck even more for women. None of these observations are exactly groundbreaking, but it’s important to note that the Truckers aren’t writing off the folks in these towns as a bunch of dumb hicks simply because a lot of them likely voted for Trump and probably will again. When you’re living life constantly in survival mode and a snake-oil salesman comes along selling a miracle cure, it’s easy to buy what he’s saying so long as he has the appearance of being on your side. Hood’s lyrics manage to offer a little insight into why they’re so easily impressed by the guy: “They say we have to hang on just a little bit longer/And a savior will come our way/We’ll know him by the neon sign/And the opulence he maintains.” It kind of makes you wonder, not just about how these folks, most of whom seem to still be suffering just like they were in 2016, will react at the polls wen they don’t see these promises fulfilled, and also if they don’t see a real possibility of anyone on the other side believably taking up their cause. I suppose that’s food for thought for supposed “liberal coastal elites” like myself, too.
6. Heroin Again
This one might be a high water mark for “weakest song on a Drive-By Truckers album”. By that I mean, I’d rather listen to this than any of the lowest points on any of the band’s other records that I’ve heard thus far. Nothing about it immediately jumps out as bad – it’s a straightforward groove of gritty guitar, drums, bass, and Hammond organ that gives both axe men a brief chance to show off when it gets to the solo section. Lyrically, I don’t think it’s nearly as insightful as many of the other tracks on the album, because it’s basically an anti-drug PSA with zero subtlety. Now I’m perfectly fine with anti-drug PSAs if the end result is that fewer people mess with hard drugs, and the likelihood that heroin use will shorten the user’s lifespan is probably why they’ve dispensed with the subtlety here. But it feels a bit like they’re preaching to someone who is already addicted and who is going to need more than a simple admonishment of “I thought you knew better than that” to actually get them to quit. Casting this as a cautionary tale meant to discourage others would probably work better, and it would be more in the band’s wheelhouse in terms of telling stories about specific characters and letting us draw the conclusions instead of spelling them out so bluntly. “You and Your Crystal Meth” from Brighter than Creation’s Dark was arguably a better example of this approach.
7. Babies in Cages
It’s probably not too hard to guess from the title what this one’s going to be about. Perhaps the most infamous policy enacted by the Trump administration is lamented here – the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents when families arrive at the U.S. border seeking asylum, with the children often left in hideously crowded and unsanitary conditions, with little regard shown for their mental or physical health. Though this is another subject that Hood is clearly angry as hell about, he’s chosen more of a downbeat R&B shuffle as a means to express his grief here, with the drums and bass doing the heavy lifting while the guitars are more about mood than muscle. He thinks of both generations past and generations to come, observing that “This ain’t the country that our granddads fought for us to be” and apologizing to his children for this happening on his generation’s watch: “I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me.” I’ve mentioned before that the Drive-By Truckers have written songs that are so grim and graphic that they’ve thoroughly grossed me out. This one might not be super-graphic – just a few mentions here and there of things like children sleeping under tinfoil blankets and having to change their younger siblings’ diapers – but this is a case where I was already thoroughly grossed out and pissed off at an absolute crime against humanity being committed by my own country in real life, so the fact that this song brings those feelings back up again is a feature of the evocative songwriting, not a bug.
8. Grievance Merchants
The simmering anger in Mike Cooley’s second song on this project seems to well up slowly, like rainclouds in a gathering storm. His premise here seems to be that white supremacy is as old as dirt and that ain’t nothing to be surprised by, but it takes a special kind of bastard to profit off of the deep-seated prejudice already held by others. His target here is basically the alt-right, but specifically the broadcasters and seminar-holders hawking conspiracy theories about how the real reason young and available white men can’t get laid is because of all those inferior brown people stealing the available women away from them. It’s a ruthless swipe at “incel” culture, perhaps not digging into the inherent sexism of those beliefs as much as I would like (because jeez, do we even give women any credit for making their own decisions in this nasty calculus?), but absolutely nailing the observation that someone’s getting mighty rich selling angry young white men (and also angry old white men who pine for “the good old days”) their racist fever dreams on a silver platter. It’s a really interesting angle for a song, and I’m right there with Cooley as he wishes for “a special hell for conners” (meaning “those who con”, I’m assuming, not the family of the late fictional Roseanne). I love how he dovetails it with one of Hood’s songs at the end by proclaiming, “May our thoughts and our prayers keep them company/As they wallow in their helplessness alone.” Nice twist of the knife there, guys.
9. Awaiting Resurrection
The final track feels like a slow dirge that gradually fades into the night. It’s over eight minutes long, yet it never feels tedious, due to how well Hood packs it out with thoughtful lyrics, and spaces these out with some modest but effective guitar licks that help to set the somber mood. This track is essentially a summary of most of the subject matter from the rest of the record, centered around the idea that there’s a great evil in this world that our supposedly great country has become enamored with. Whether it manifests in the form of gun violence, or white supremacy, or religious hypocrisy, or young children wasting away in cages, or democracy having its puppet strings pulled by foreign powers, the song points to one central figure who may not have started the entire mess, but whose presence has certainly served to exacerbate it all to a ridiculous degree: “There’s a whiplash in the news/The evil man’s tirades/A joker’s motorcade/And military parades/Lives in the balance/Of the dirty deals made/To win elections.” You can tell that Hood is also dealing with some rather weighty questions of what to believe in terms of faith, too. Is there a God or a Heaven? Will he end this life to come back as something better in the next one? His struggle to figure out what be believes personally dovetails with the dawning realization that America itself is dying, and might one day hopefully re-awaken as something better: “In the end, we’re just standing/Watching greatness fade/Into darkness/Awaiting resurrection.” Chilling lines to end a record on, and probably the sort of thing that would spawn accusations of the band being unpatriotic. But I hear what they’re saying. I’m ashamed at what my country has become, too – and I still love this place and believe we can do better for everyone who lives here and also for those who come across our borders seeking a better life. I think that’s more patriotic at the end of the day than believing that America is only meant to be a paradise for the privileged who can afford to disregard everyone who isn’t as fortunate. Let’s all hope (and, if so inclined, pray) that we are merely experiencing the darkest night that lies just before he dawn.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun $1
Armageddon’s Back in Town $1.75
Slow Ride Argument $1.50
Thoughts and Prayers $1.75
21st Century USA $1
Heroin Again $.75
Babies in Cages $1
Grievance Merchants $1.50
Awaiting Resurrection $1
Patterson Hood: Vocals, guitars, mandolin
Mike Cooley: Vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica
Brad “EZB” Morgan: Drums
Jay Gonzalez: Keyboards, guitar, accordion, saw, backing vocals
Matt Patton: Bass, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: