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Drive-By Truckers “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” Review

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On “Not Everybody Likes Us” Hank Williams III lays into modern country music, grumbling “Well I think I’d rather eat the barrel of a double-barrel loaded shotgun, than to hear that shit they call pop-country music on ninety eight point one.” To some degree such sentiments could never be thought of when considering the path of the Drive-By Truckers, a journey that has now delivered Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The band has never played or recorded any such “pop-country” that sickens Hank III but the band has also never embarked entirely on an album hinged entirely on rock; their 2006 release A Blessing and a Curse coming as the band’s most sincere attempt at shedding its Southern Rock label. In this, the group’s first release since the high profile departure of Jason Isbell, the band returns to a version of country that is full of struggle, pain and misunderstanding; the kind of country you’ll never hear on the radio or CMT and possibly as close to mainstream rebel country as is possible these days.

A recent article poked fun at the rules behind the blues; the most amusing part of the list was that it was spot on…which unfortunately might be why hearing honest blues is such a rarity these days. One line in particular sticks out in the article, not for being funny necessarily, but just thought provoking, “The Blues is not about choice. You stuck in a ditch, you stuck in a ditch–ain’t no way out.” For a certain sector of blues that has always been the case – you got no home, you got no woman, you got no teeth, that’s just how it’s gonna be. But when the blues branched off (was stolen) and found a new home in country music, a mystique began to build – one that allowed its subjects to find redemption. A case that teeters between such redemption and the “if you stuck, you stuck” mentality is that of the Patterson Hood-lead track “The Righteous Path.” The song is a blues text-book example of what’s gone wrong in a character’s life though all the while Hood attempts to clarify that the stay on the road least traveled might be the one worth taking.

Such personal salvation seems to be apparent throughout the album as well, especially so in the case bassist Shonna Tucker’s lyrical inclusion. Once married to Jason Isbell, Tucker has now been given a leading role in the band as the third vocalist and songwriter; her “Purgatory Line” is a triumph, blending the band’s echo into another blues-ridden hard luck story, “If Jesus walked on water then where’d he get them shoes? It just keeps gettin’ harder to lose these walkin’ blues. I want you to come and take me home for a while. Save me from this purgatory line.” Filling any void and then some, Tucker encourages a sense of collective between the band that has been lacking, one that allows the Drive-By Truckers to flow smoothly between each of the band’s structures, melodies and themes.

Pitchfork’s Joshua Love says of the balance found between the band’s different voices and opinions on the album, “Using the broadest strokes imaginable, gravelly and grizzly Hood is the endlessly vigilant, fiercely protective papa bear, while laconic slick-talker (Mike) Cooley the hell-raising, yarn-spinning fuck-up.” As much as each part is unlike the next, they compliment each other wholly; such an example of this is an old record that a friend introduced me to in college, Willie and Family Live. On the album Willie Nelson invites his touring family with him, dedicating their tales to one another and having a damn good time in the process. Like the Truckers, Nelson’s 1978 release invokes equal parts blues and rock with a sound dominated in country.

Enforcing the variety on the album is Hood’s “The Man I Shot,” a song crunchier than anything Nelson ever considered recording though it does justice to the sense of inclusion that Family boasts so consistently.Brighter Than Creation’s Dark utilizes its unique voices, stories and players the same way Family does so with Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Paycheck, both spouting stories of drinking, defiance, pain and loss. The Truckers’ latest also defies tradition, breaking free from the “ain’t no way out” blues mentality while avoiding any pop-country garishness – it is mainstream country with the purity of Hank III played the way Willie would have had he grown up a few years later.