Drive-By Truckers think about their albums. Sure, any musician does that, but it still bears repeating: Drive-By Truckers think about their albums. Just look at Patterson Hood’s liner notes. Even misfires like A Blessing and a Curse (which is still pretty good) have a vision behind them. It might not always come together as intended, but Hood and Co. deeply consider how certain songs go together and why they should or shouldn’t be on the same record. It’d be a real surprise if they ever put out a bad batch of songs.
So, upon sitting down to Drive-By Truckers’ tenth studio album, English Oceans, I’m torn. There are definitely flaws, but I’m certain I’ll come to better appreciate these chinks in the armor a few months down the road. As has been the case with all of DBT’s albums, the supposed rough edges — raw mastering, Hood’s occasional political righteousness, guitar work that sometimes just grooves without going anywhere — will eventually add to the character of the whole thing. I have a hunch I’ll embrace them in the future.
Let’s start with the present then, shall we? As storytellers, the Truckers have shrunk in the best way possible, turning their narratives away from the South and more toward southerners who could be from anywhere, really. Whereas older releases would sprinkle a couple of songs about heartbreak among a record’s worth of backwoods devils, drug dealers, and Buford Pussers, here it’s the opposite. Sure, there’s the one about the guy who burns down his house (“When Walter Went Crazy”), plus a brace of Cooley/Hood tunes about slimy Reagan/Bush Sr. operative Lee Atwater (“Made-Up English Oceans”, “The Part of Him”). But everywhere else, these are normal folks with normal problems: a disgruntled construction worker (opener “Shit Shots Count”), a woman stuck in a codependent relationship (“When He’s Gone”), a father afraid to see his daughter grow up (“Primer Coat”). And it goes on like that. There are surprisingly few scumbags to be found throughout the 13 tracks.
Though this lack of lyrical color might seem troubling, it’s actually a good thing. Drive-By Truckers have shown so many sides of the South that most Americans aren’t aware of, from laying out both the good and the bad parts of former Alabama governor George Wallace to exposing how manipulative Sun Records mogul Sam Phillips really was. Moving their stories from Harry Crews to Raymond Carver is a surprising, and thus smart, move. Even better, the shift in content hasn’t reduced the number of hundred-dollar one-liners from Mike Cooley, who, for the first time, penned just as many songs as Hood. From his joke book/life manual: “Meat’s just meat and it’s all born dying/ Some is tender and some is tough/ Somebody’s gotta mop up the A1/ Somebody’s gotta mop up the blood.”
But the instrumentation and mixing don’t often match the bold storytelling, which is strange since English Oceans feels like the most Rock (with a seriously capital “R”) LP that the Truckers have put out since The Dirty South. “Shit Shots Count”, for example, has a hiss to it that keeps it from being the Stones rave-up it ought to be, with the climax’s horns smothered too heavily by the guitars. Elsewhere, “Hearing Jimmy Loud” and “Til He’s Dead or Rises” clip along at a mid-level boogie that never really takes off, no matter how many axes are being played.
There are several spots, however, where the music and lyrics dovetail perfectly. Hood centerpiece “Pauline Hawkins” (based on the latest novel by Willy Vlautin) toggles between minor key dread and anthemic bursts of piano that capture both the fear and optimism of the song’s protagonist, who’s preparing to leave her domineering partner. Closer “Grand Canyon” uses loud-soft dynamics to similar effect, with every instrument dropping out at the end save for Brad Morgan’s drums. The cavernous thumping — interspersed with some discordant hums — paints an emotional, if haunting, tribute to Drive-By Truckers’ recently deceased employee and friend Craig Lieske.
Musical diversity doesn’t need to be the name of the game for every song. Many of these just lack the immediate oomph that makes you realize how good the words being said truly are. If you disagree, talk to me in the near future. Perhaps I’ll disagree then, too.
Essential Tracks: “Pauline Hawkins”, “Grand Canyon”