Drive-by Truckers Amp Up the Political Angst on Fiery ‘The Unraveling’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Having seen one of America’s very best rock bands, Drive-by Truckers (DBTs), the day after the 2016 Election, their performance was inspired, ferocious, and angry at times as one would have expected. Yet, the collective vibe both onstage in the audience was collective release from the shocking numbness still felt by the election result. As such, the anger never reached a boiling pitch. Now, three and half years later, the DBTs have seemingly bottled that festering anger into their most personally scathing political album, The Unraveling.  The band, now with its longest-running continuing lineup in its tenure, is a fine-tuned but still primal roaring machine that backs the literate writing of co-leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. 

This is their longest gap between albums, allowing the writers to get plenty off their collective chests this time, but it wasn’t easy conquering writers’ block. Now, to be fair, this writer had this to say about their previous effort American Band, in another outlet,  “Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley harnessed their rage and have made their most explicitly political album in their storied catalog. They explore, as only they can in their articulate lyrics, issues such as race, income inequality, the NRA, deregulation, police brutality, terrorism and the plagues of suicide and opioid abuse. This is protest music done loudly and proudly.”  So, the natural question becomes, where would they take it from there? 

Here’s Hood again, “How do you put these day-to-day things we’re all living through into the form of a song that we (much less anybody else) would ever want to listen to? How do you write about the daily absurdities when you can’t even wrap your head around them in the first place? I think our response was to focus at the core emotional level. More heart and less cerebral perhaps…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 our records are political, but I’ve also said that ‘politics is personal’. With that in mind, this album is especially personal.” Not only that, strikingly, while not a quantum leap,  it’s a major step forward in lyrical and musical intensity from its predecessor.

This what they are writing about, mostly from Hood, seven of the nine tunes. “21st Century USA” paints a bleak picture of middle America (inspired by a tour stop in Gillette, Wyoming) where “In a town that’s named for razor blades/All American but Chinese made/Folks working hard for shrinking pay/21st Century USA. “Babes in Cages” is a brutal assailing of child brutality on the border. “Heroin Again” speaks to suicide and the on-going drug crisis. The opening “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” takes on the growing far-right Christian/NRA segment that recently feels newly empowered. Cooley’s “Grievance Merchants” seems to abstractly be about the Nazi march in Charlottesville with some of the most impassioned vocals we’ve ever heard from him. Hood’s “Thoughts and Prayers,’ about the rising gun violence and lock-down drills, reaches its exasperation point with “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.”

Yet, the two most enduring tracks may be the single, “Armageddon’s Back in Town” and the epic closer, “Awaiting Resurrection” where Hood captures not a singular topic but the overriding themes of what this era feels like too many. The former has lines like “You can’t tell the rabbit from the hat” and “There’s be no healing from the art of double-dealing.”  Amidst scathing commentary of what’s going on, Hood’s outlook is summed up in these lines in the latter, “Seeking some salvation/to the limits of my talents/I hold my family close/trying to find the balance/Between the bad shit going down /and the beauty that this life can keep injecting.” Yes, extracting these snippets of lyrics is a bit risky. Go ahead and take it all in.

Start with the album art. Like American Band, it does not feature the renowned Wes Freed’s artwork like the others do. Instead, we have silhouettes of two young kids standing at the beach, at either sunrise or dusk, staring into the horizon. It could be taken as hopeful or mournful, but certainly peaceful. Hood says, “That’s my son and his friend on the cover. I love the picture because it could be construed as hopeful, but it’s dark and apocalyptic, too. It’s beautiful, and I think this record is beautiful. There are a lot of emotions in what we’re doing now.”

The Drive-by Truckers remain Mike Cooley (guitar/vocals), Patterson Hood (guitar/vocals), Brad Morgan (drums), Jay Gonzalez (‘Secret Weapon”) (guitars, keyboards, vocals) and Matt Patton (bass, vocals). The album was recorded mostly live in just one or two takes at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis with longtime producer David Barbe and in-demand producer Matt Ross-Spang. Additional musical contributors include Kyleen King (Brandi Carlile) for viola and string arrangements on “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” and “21st Century USA,” Patti King (The Shins) for violin on those two aforementioned tunes and Cody Dickinson for the memorable electric washboard in “Babes in Cages.”

DBTs are launching a massive worldwide tour behind this album. Catch them live as they are one of the best enduring live acts there is. In the meantime, play this loud just as they did. It will hit you hard, but you’ll be back for more.


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