Wild Mercury Sound
Drive-By Truckers: "Brighter Than Creation's Dark"
A few of you have been asking for me to write something about the new Drive-By Truckers album and, to be honest, I’ve been putting off doing so for weeks now, playing the record again and again to come to terms with it.
As I guess I’ve mentioned before, the point of Wild Mercury Sound isn’t really to slag records off: there are plenty of places where that happens on the internet, and, more importantly, there are enough records I can get wholeheartedly behind to fill these daily posts. But “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” presents me with something of a dilemma: a new album by a band who, historically, I’ve loved, and one that’s being acclaimed by quite a few of my colleagues as a masterpiece (check out Andrew Mueller’s review of it in the next Uncut, for starters), but one that I’m feeling rather equivocal about.
Maybe the best way to deal with this is to briefly address my problems with it, then move onto the good bits – there are, after all, a hefty 19 tracks, so there’s still plenty to enjoy here. The biggest issue, I think, is the absence of Jason Isbell. As most people have noted, Isbell’s tenure in the band was always likely to be relatively short, and as last year’s “Sirens Of The Ditch” proved, he’s well suited to a solo career. But I think some of the very best songs on every Truckers album since “Decoration Day” – and in the case of “Danko/Manuel” and “Decoration Day” itself, actually my favourite Truckers songs – have been written by Isbell. And even in a team of many songwriters like the Drive-By Truckers, there’s a keen sense of something important missing.
The other problem, though, is a relative lack of rock. Isbell and his flaming leads have been replaced by John Neff, who focuses on pedal steel, and the venerable figure of Spooner Oldham on keyboards. Which is pretty cool, but moves the band further away from that inspirational rethink of Southern Rock and towards a much more orthodox – and, to me, less interesting – brand of Americana.
When they do kick off – on the roistering, fuzzed Stones boogie of “3 Dimes Down”, say, or the song which follows it, “The Righteous Path”, which reminds me of Patterson Hood’s best songs from “The Dirty South” – there’s plenty of proof that the Drive-By Truckers are an incredibly potent band. Corny title notwithstanding, “That Man I Shot” is a great display of their elemental muscle, a way of constructing something at once forceful and yet atmospheric out of hairy old southern rock
Skipping through the tracks as I write, there’s maybe half of this long, dense album that I really like – more, I must admit, than I suspected when I started writing this morning. Again, “The Home Front” is a really subtle and engaging slowing-down of their schtick, far from any lame Steve Earle territory, where Neff’s steel complements Hood and Mike Cooley’s guitars brilliantly. And of the stripped-back songs, the shuffling narrative of “The Opening Act” confirms, yet again, the warmth and skilfulness of Hood’s storytelling.
The strangest and best thing about “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”, though, is that the songwriting laurels are taken by bassist Shonna Tucker, who’s never previously fronted a Truckers recorded song. “I’m Sorry Huston” and “The Purgatory Line” are finely-wrought, tensely-detailed country-rock songs with a distinct affinity to Lucinda Williams.
And the highlight of the record comes with the first 30-odd seconds of “Home Field Advantage”, a great seething, storm-brewing, limbering-up session which eventually explodes into a hearty, raunchy rock song that proves irrefutably that, now her ex has quit the band, Tucker is technically – and maybe, time will tell, emotionally – the best singer in the Truckers.
Which leaves me contemplating the positives in this unwieldy, sometimes disappointing, half-fine album and thinking that, with a bit of luck, Tucker’s emergence could well usher in yet another fruitful era for this most erratic, complicated and compelling of American bands. Not written them off yet, then. Let me know what you think. . .