While they still might have a reluctant pride for the Stars and Bars, at their very core the Drive-By Truckers are one of rock music's finest acts, both above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Their turbulent relationship with the South—as a location, a bloodline, a way of life—falls somewhere between the poetic grace of Faulkner and the bawdy simplicity of Lynyrd Skynyrd. At their peak—usually the live setting—DBT are an unstoppable force, even if their latest record, Brighter than Creation's Dark, is not free of flaws.
It's a lot to digest in any one sitting, but 19-track albums usually are. And it's safe to say that the fat of Brighter Than could be hacked away, leaving a pristine 10-song album that could very well rival their finest work (2001's Southern Rock Opera and 2003's Decoration Day.) Part of the drop off in quality was the departure of longtime guitarist Jason Isbell, who left the band (and his wife, bass player Shonna Tucker) last April. Part of the three-headed songwriting beast that put DBT on the map, Isbell's songs were less frequent than those of frontman Patterson Hood or guitarist Mike Cooley, but what they lacked in sheer number, they more than made up for in significant emotional heft. Isbell had a knack for weaving intricate stories of tragic, yet loveable, characters, and his absence on Brighter Than is hard to ignore.
It's difficult to enjoy Brighter Than without one finger perched on the "skip" button, especially when the horrific "Bob" comes rolling by. A Cooley track, "Bob" feels terribly out of place on this, and any, DBT release. Over the past dozen years the band has established a trustworthy quality that you can set your watch to, but that is not the case here. An amateurish song with lyrics that go from bad ("Bob goes to church every Sunday/Every Sunday that the fish ain't biting") to worse ("Bob ain't light in the loafers/ He might kneel but he never bends over"), it's hard to recover from it, and the next song, Tucker's "Home Field Advantage," with its ridiculous lyrics chock full of sports puns, doesn't help.
But like any project that has stretched out over so many disorderly years, the Drive-By Truckers take the good with the bad. While "Bob" might coax my fist to slam into my car stereo, any song penned by Hood has the opposite effect. His material is remarkably consistent, fantastic four-minute stories of working-class blues, the wrath of crystal meth, a soldier's guilt over killing someone in the Iraq War, and numerous other back-against-the-wall struggles. Much like in Bruce Springsteen's classic "Atlantic City," Hood (an outspoken fan of the Boss) sings of a similar protagonist in "The Righteous Path," a man who finds himself laboring to keep his head above water, no matter what the cost. "I got a couple of big secrets I'd kill to keep hid/I don't know God but I fear his wrath/I'm trying to keep focused on the righteous path."
The world-weary rasp of Patterson Hood is the salvation of Brighter Than. To hear his voice, spliced between the masculine husk of Cooley and the feminine charm of Tucker, is a welcome balance. And while the new record isn't exactly what us longtime DBT fans hoped for, we know there will be plenty more to come. The Drive-By Truckers will rise again.
Drive-By Truckers play the Roseland on Friday, February 15.