It’s easy to understand why Drive-By Truckers are one of the most consistently underrated bands in America—their brand of Southern rock hasn’t been fashionable since Skynyrd’s plane ran out of gas in 1977. Blog hype is reserved for the younger, jumpier set, while the mainstream magazines have too many classic-rocker comeback albums to bother with a band like the Truckers. They consistently get good reviews from both online ‘zines and print publications, only to be passed over when year-end lists are released. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. I may have been raving about bands like The Go! Team and The Fiery Furnaces three years ago, but I haven’t listened to Thunder Lightning Strike or Blueberry Boat since George W. Bush was reelected. Meanwhile, The Dirty South has been in constant rotation since the week it was released.
But Brighter Than Creation’s Dark will be impossible to ignore. It’s a stunning achievement, filled with gorgeous songs that explore the dark side of American life in the 21st century. The topics here—murder, war, hopelessness, addiction—would be sunk with overwrought theatrics by less talented songwriters, but Patterson Hood, Shonna Tucker, and Mike Cooley avoid maudlin tearjerking by focusing on individuals. They infuse their songs with little details that move their focus from universal statements to individual experiences.
Hood’s aching ballad “The Home Front” and furious rocker “The Man I Shot” illustrate this subtle shift. Most songs about the Iraq war have been filled with universal statements that fail to add up to anything significant or moving, but Hood argues against the war successfully with two small-scale stories. By describing the soldier’s wife in “The Home Front” and the GI in “The Man I Shot” through their personal emotions, he’s able to affect us much more than a thousand angry protest songs. Cooley’s songs tend to be much more enigmatic, but his character sketches are just as stunning as Hood’s. It’s difficult to decipher exactly why the weapons dealer in the gorgeous “Checkout Time in Vegas” is scared, but we can feel his resignation through his clenched delivery.
There are occasional missteps—”Lisa’s Birthday” drags, and Tucker’s three songs are only okay. But Brighter Than Creation’s Dark succeeds so completely throughout the rest of its running time that these occasional slip-ups don’t really matter. The Drive-By Truckers have created another masterpiece that will hopefully garner the respect they deserve. They’ve certainly earned it.
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