January 31, 2020 Drive-By Truckers – The Unraveling (Album Review)
It has been almost four years since American Band, the previous effort by the Athens, Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers. That in mind, they have picked perhaps the most clamorous time in recent memory to work on The Unraveling, due out January 31st through ATO.
A band formed back in 1996 by dueling Guitarists/Vocalists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the band did not have to look far to learn the value of hard and constant work; Patterson is the son of David Hood, who co-founded Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and has thus backed countless R&B, Country, and Soul hits since the 1960s. Once Drive-By Truckers hit their stride, two acclaimed albums arrived in short order: 2001’s Southern Rock Opera and 2003’s Decoration Day. A great start, the combination of their raucous live shows, poignant lyrics, and unique bend on Southern heritage has been entertaining fans ever since. Fast forward to The Unraveling, the band keeps a steady lineup, rounded out by longtime member Brad Morgan on drums; Jay Gonzalez on keyboards, accordion, and assorted other needs; and joined by relative newcomer Matt Patton on bass.
Looking back a little more, American Band was released two months before the 2016 presidential election, and as such, it was written and recorded in a dense time of historical turmoil. With the next election on the horizon, The Unraveling sees the band broaden and extend its view outward, from the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to newer horrors like school and church shootings, the shrinking middle class, nationalist violence, and the casual acceptance and growth of drug and substance abuse.
Complete with nine songs, each of them dip evenly between fast thrill rides and slow deep ballads; “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” starts slowly, only to have the pace quicken considerably with “Armageddon’s Back in Town” and “Slow Ride Argument,” before “Thoughts and Prayers” and “21st Century” slow the roll again. The band has long mastered the subtle art of eloquently layering incisive lyrics over unsuspecting music. Whether it is the bass-and-drums boogie of “Babies in Cages,” whose topic is hard to ignore, to the rocking “Heroin Again,” to the long, sanguine “Awaiting Resurrection,” whose speaker is lying on the shore, waiting for the dismal tide to wash away their lifetime of sins and evil. This track, the album’s last, ends with such a strong, bitter taste, it is no wonder that Hood mentioned the pieces of the next album are already well into place, which should bode well against the writer’s block the band experienced between this album and its prior.
The only down note appears with the result, but not the intent, of “21st Century USA”; a long languid list of ills for the working class, soon to be the working poor, makes an excellent point on the written page—especially with the deft lyrics and wordplay—but comes off a bit too saccharine musically.
However, Cooley takes the reins for “Grievance Merchants,” a thick, driving number which contains equal parts guitar and keyboards, as well as the change of pace from the distinct pipes of Hood. The lyrical content itself is as disturbing, ranging from violence from nationalism to incels, while also revisiting the themes of the earlier “Thoughts and Prayers.” Written with a scathing tongue and exhausted patience, “Thoughts and Prayers” comes across as a plucky ballad, but its biting criticism spits back in the face of the simplest, easiest reactions to the prevalence of violence: “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.” Ahead of the album’s release, Hood mused, “I’ve always said that all of our records are political but I’ve also said that ‘politics IS personal‘.”
Nary a stitch nor a string falls out of place here, as the band weaves its lyrical zeitgeist into sprawling, anthemic numbers that still somehow sneak up while listening. Seventies Punk may have used brash volume to make their points, but The Unraveling makes equally well-reasoned, well-researched points, and the restraint shown on some songs may be even more of a testament to the feeling and empathy behind them, and there are still points. This is true with “Babies in Cages,” “Heroin Again,” and “Thoughts and Prayers,” where the naked emotion nearly spills out of the calm, but never rigid, demeanor of the songs. The Unraveling is a worthy addition to the work of Drive-By Truckers, as well as the musical landscape writ large, and that is why Cryptic Rock give it 4.5 out 5 stars.