There’s never been much music to the Drive-By Truckers, at least as music’s defined under late capitalism: bytes of information, hooks, sound effects, hummable melodies. But late capitalism has never been much to their protagonists. They see only an eternal, wretched present of prison time, of one goddamn job after another if you’re lucky, of welfare mothers making shitty lovers, of keeping on keeping on. So it’s entirely appropriate that the band would conjure up their lot in life musically via the inexorable roil of their triple-guitar attack.
But as a semi-unreconstructed Alabamian, head Trucker Patterson Hood never saw concept albums, rock operas, and other such highfalutin ideas as antithetical to this project. He set the fiery demise of his beloved Lynyrd Skynyrd to song and frequently used his albums to air out his record collection like any other sun-deprived bohemian. When he wasn’t giving us a tour of a South gutted by an economy going service, Hood led a convoy through rock and roll history—Danko-Manuel, Sam Phillips, Carl Perkins, and GG Allin coexisted with Uncle Frank, John Henry, the Living Bubba, and Sweet Annette. Indeed, this plunderiffic cast of characters goes a long way toward explaining the band’s appeal to Yanks.
Well, no more. On A Blessing and a Curse, the Truckers’ newest, no concepts hit you on the head, no librettos guide you through the roil. In fact, apart from dead three-year-old “Little Bonnie” and intrusive Eugene, not a proper name is uttered in 47 minutes. It’s almost as if Hood and convoy decided those were all sops distracting the Yankee audience from Uncle Frank’s misery. So pretty much all that’s left here is their trademark peakless never-let-up in both hard-rockin’ and slow-dirge modes. Precious few moments poke out at the ear. “Daylight” is the shapeliest melody of their career and once again proves Jason Isbell a richer singer than the howling Hood. Proving they can still pace an album, it comes right after the longest, dreariest dirge and the bummer advice column closer “A World of Hurt.” But the music keeps keeping on, just like a parade of beaten-down characters for whom life is the only thing worth living—and some aren’t even so sure about that.
Does this make Curse the Truckers’ most Southern record? The ostensible focus of their songs has always been Southerners feeling the homogenizing effects of gross urbanization. But with no narrative thrust or conceptual casing, we are forced to confront their misery head-on. So as the entire space between Houston and Dallas (not to mention Chicago and Iowa City) is zoned urban, they spend the album sinking to a bottom that never comes. “It’s all worse than you think,” muses one methed-up zombie as he tries to remember how the blood got in his sink. Another is on the verge of sucking off a shotgun. Even if these children of Uncle Frank manage to get out from under their loneliness, despair, and suicidal contemplations, they still have to deal with what Hood calls “the Duality of the Southern thing”: Ronnie and Neil; Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King; gangsta and ‘billy; drive-by and truckers; blessing and curse. But more than ever, a wall of hurt renders these antinomies permanently irreconcilable.
Rock’s the only thing that saved the Truckers from life in the factory (what factory?). But it’s difficult to keep keeping on interesting. Right now and on this album, they do so with authority and a certain attractive inevitability. But will they take their own advice in order to avoid the fate of Danko-Manuel? “The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits,” “A World of Hurt” tells us. But who ever does? It’s not as if alternative career paths await them.