ALBUM REVIEW: Drive-By Truckers “The Unraveling”

Drive-By Truckers “The Unraveling” cover art

Drive-By Truckers “The Unraveling” cover art

Drive-By Truckers are back with a vengeance after 3 ½ years with their new album The Unraveling. Always a political band, the current state of world affairs and the political climate here at home have given them ample fodder to be frustrated about.

Lesser bands might have balked and simply turned their backs to the reality that has been happening in Washington since 2016. But as Patterson Hood put it “Writing silly love songs just seemed the height of privilege.”

And so DBT have gifted us with an album that is both beautiful and terrifying, often at the same time, much like life in the 21st Century.

Drive-By Truckers L to R: Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Matt Patton, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez

Drive-By Truckers
L to R: Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Matt Patton, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez

Recorded at Sam Phillips legendary Sun Studios in Memphis with longtime producer Dave Barbe, the album sounds glowing. Barbe made full use of Sun Studios famous reverb chambers to give a warmth and depth to the music. It sounds as if the band is playing in the same room with you listening. The band tracked the songs live in studio capturing the urgency and drive of a band that has something to say and ain’t afraid to say it. (Special mention to Greg Calbi for the mastering – the whole album sounds nice and natural, and if you want to hear it louder, just turn it up – no ear bleeding loudness on this one).

But of course, there was the dilemma of how to write songs about what is happening in our world today that would connect with people, that would tell the truth, but without scaring people away. Well no worries here as Hood and Mike Cooley have delivered one of the strongest, sharpest and downright listenable albums the DBT’s have ever released and all while not losing the razor-sharp switchblade edge of the subject matter.

ROSEMARY WITH A BIBLE AND A GUN a song that Hood imagined as a sort of Bobbi Gentry southern gothic starts the album off in style. With it’s beautiful string arrangements by Kyleen & Patti King and its lovely lilting melody is the calm before the storm. Because the rest of this album requires you to suit up, strap in and start to take stock, because the shit has gotten real people and DBT are facing it head-on.

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS devotes itself to the seemingly weekly or twice weekly school ground shooting or the workplace shooting or the nightclub shooting… the list of potential killing fields does seem to be getting bigger doesn’t it? And the standard “You Are In Our Thoughts And Prayers” response of politicians that could help stop the bloodshed but won’t because the NRA has Washington bought and paid for. Well that shit don’t fly on this album and those guilty of looking the other way for a campaign contribution payday are told exactly where they can put those empty words. And that place won’t be seeing any daylight anytime soon.

“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
They’ll throw the bums all out and drain that swamp for real
Purp walk them down the Capitol steps and show them how it feels
Tramp the dirt down, Jesus. You can pray the rod they’ll spare
Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers”

21st CENTURY USA again featuring another lovely string arrangement by Kayleen and Patti King and set to a pretty repeating chord pattern. The track is simply elevated to another level by the Brad Morgan’s perfect drumming. He does a lot here without ever getting in the way of the song, Charlie Watts would be proud. This is the song that opened up the writing floodgates on this album for Hood and he takes a sly look at life in small towns in America. Although I think if we’re being honest this may be what life across America has become for many; big city or small. A USA where people are holding on by their fingernails to a very small piece of the pie. And where even though we’re surrounded by the marvels of a world that makes us more connected than at any other time in history, many people are feeling more isolated and disconnected than at any other point in their lives.

“Men working hard for not enough, at best
Women working just as hard for less”
They say we have to hang on a little bit longer and a savior will come our way
We’ll know him by the neon sign and the opulence he maintains
If Amazon can deliver salvation, I’ll order it up on my phone
With Big Brother watching me always, why must I always feel so alone”

HEROIN AGAIN says hello to an old “friend” making a come back in a big way (please note the heavy sarcasm on the word “friend” – no letters please). I mean who reading this hasn’t known somebody affected by the opioid crisis? Not many I’ll bet, and not me for sure. And guess what kids, this ain’t “Mr. Brownstones” first invite to the dance. He just keeps coming back again and again. If you’re a little long in the tooth like I am you’ve witnessed his return more than a few times, like a black plague that sucks the life and the youth from one generation to the next. But I gotta say I never thought I would see the day this shit would be prescribed to people by doctors and pharmaceutical companies would make billions off their backs! BILLIONS! I did NOT see that one coming.

“Losing your joy, playing with dangerous toys
insulate yourself from life and all of its big noise
Insinuate a fever dream, instigate a requiem
a deafening explosion of shame, an orgasm inside of your brain
Beautiful lost girl, you turn your back on this mean sweet world
A taste of heaven, some part of you dies
til you’re something you can’t recognize
Silly young man why you using heroin?
I thought you knew better than that
I thought you knew better than that”

BABIES IN CAGES takes an unflinching look at the fact that because of President Trump’s immigration policies the United States has gotten to a point where they literally lock children in cages, kept apart from their parents, without proper medical care and then we televise it on the six o’clock news. WTF, right? But we’ve all seen it and have been sickened by it. Because we know it’s not right. America is better than that, or at least we tell ourselves it is. The song is set to an ominous bump & grind of a beat that snakes along like a snake looking for a mouse. All this as waves of feedback, organ stabs and guitars weave in and out of the mix again making wonderful use of those Sun Studio reverb rooms.

“The world wakes up this morning
I’m sorry for the news
Wrapped up in a tinfoil blanket without any shoes
Babies in cages
I’m sorry to my children
I’m sorry what they see
I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me
Babies in cages
Are we so divided
That we can’t at least agree
This ain’t the country that our granddads fought for us to be?
Babies in cages

roars out of the speakers with a Crazy Horse meets Roky Erickson vibe that just flat out rocks. This time the band tries on some of that world-famous Sam Phillips slap back echo that Elvis made famous. And they do it to such wonderful effect and rock out so fiercely that you almost might not notice the song’s lyrics that decry the rise of ultra-right-wing hate groups that prey on young impressionable minds. I did say almost because the message is delivered loud and clear.

“As long as there have been stories lies and airwaves
what makes a man a mans been right up front,
in visions, boys are sold of what it could be
and grievance when it ain’t like what they thought,
when money and respect seem to allude him
and being white alone don’t make the ladies swoon
there’s no shortage when it comes to hearing voices
telling him it’s him that’s done unto”

DRIVE-BY-TRUCKERS; photo James Christopher

DRIVE-BY-TRUCKERS; photo James Christopher

I know you might be thinking at this point… Dude this album sounds kind of like a bummer. But guess what, it really, really isn’t!

The songs are all wonderfully recorded and played by musicians that sound committed to their cause. With strong hooks and thoughtful lyrics Hood and Cooley have delivered a protest album that does what the very best protest albums do. They sneak the message into your consciousness rather that hit you over the head with it. That these are troubling times can’t be denied. That we have song writers as good as Hood & Cooley that care enough to tell it like it is and at the same time lift us up to a place we can sing along is a blessing. Actually getting up off our asses and doing something to change things is on us.

The Unraveling by Drive-By Truckers
5/5 Stars