The evolution of the Drive-By Truckers has been as much about sound as it has been about restructuring and refinement. Guitarists and songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have honed the DBT sound for over 20 years of writing together, and that history is nowhere more prevalent than on the band’s seventh studio album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.
But the consistency of the duo’s writing is countered by inconsistency in the band’s lineup. Far from a negative, these shake-ups have spawned rebirth after rebirth, adding soul to the raucous people that live and die desperately in the Truckers body of work, the combustible compositions forming blazing backdrops for tombstone perspectives, dizzying regret, and faint glimmers of always-elusive hope.
Since the band’s last release, A Blessing and a Curse. Jason Isbell left the fold, taking with him his guitar case of heart-hewn ballads, replaced by old friend and former band member John Neff on pedal steel and guitar. More importantly, the incisive lyricism of Isbell promised to mark the most devastating loss for the band – before bassist Shonna Tucker stepped up to the microphone, unveiling an acute pen and warm, satin tone.
It is clear that the Drive-By Truckers heard on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark isn’t the same as the one that teetered on the brink of anonymity for years, the band that struggled under the thumb of a merciless industry, their only resolve in some beat-up road cases and a coffer full of words and notes. Some of the old dirt and sweat has been brushed away, the sound more clear, deliberate, and textured, aided and abetted by Spooner Oldham’s keyboard prowess and veteran polish.
But even with its grandiose reach and a direction that is as crisp and polished as the Truckers’ early work is raw and ragged, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark still falls short due to the sprawling 19 tracks that lean awkwardly like a longleaf pine after a hurricane wind. “You and Your Crystal Meth” bubbles feverishly, but never threatens fire. The reworked “Goodesfield Road,” is as menacing as the demons on the heels of the protagonist, yet regrettably, the sonic trigger is never pulled. But despite these shortcomings, the heart of the Truckers is still there; Hood’s “The Man I Shot” brims with desperation over an apocalyptic rhythm, Cooley lends details to an eccentric silhouette found in every neighborhood with “Bob,” and Tucker’s “Home Field Advantage” simmers as hot as ‘70s rock radio.
The Drive-By Truckers have spent its career in a state of flux, a cycling cast of players joining Hood, Cooley and drummer Brad Morgan, each initiating another revival in the veteran band. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is no different, with Shonna Tucker adding irreverent beauty to an irreverent band. While not perfect, this album marks another vital milestone in the Drive-By Truckers’ history and illuminates the shear strength of Hood and Cooley’s songwriting, a collaboration that continues to delve uninhibited into Trailer-Park Gothic , emerging consistently with truth.
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark will be released January 22 on New West Records.