The best song on the Drive-By Truckers’ new 19-track monolith, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, will remind you why you like them; the album’s worst song, which is in fact the worst song they’ve ever done by a substantial margin, will teach you to love them again. It’s a shocking, harrowing vision of how disastrous this band could’ve been, how delicate a touch their rousing but resoundingly bitter Southern-rock cocktail of Flannery O’Connor character sketches and Van Zant anthemia requires. It’s called “Bob.” It will give you nightmares. Let us approach “Bob” slowly and cautiously.
So start with the best. That would be “The Opening Act,” Brighter‘s iteration of that reliable moment on a DBT album when Patterson Hood—the raspier, more cynical, more prolific of the Alabama crew’s two primary songwriters—deploys his biting but still sweetly sentimental version of a power ballad, a Bic-flicker that burns you badly but still lights your way. Longtime fans can lovingly trace their scars: the bare-knuckled lullaby “Heathens” off 2003’s Decoration Day, or (personal favorite) the gorgeously catastrophic “Tornadoes” off 2004’s The Dirty South, the climactic harmony as he wails “I swear/It sounded like a train” like glimpsing the face of God and recoiling in terror at the destruction one breath could unleash. Patterson’s quietest at his most devastating, and vice versa; “The Opening Act” is a small symphony of touring-van desperation, wherein a fat man is bucked off a mechanical bull (requiring paramedic assistance) as a has-been rock band plays a passionate set to a thinning, apathetic crowd and Patterson soaks it all in with sympathetic resignation: “It ain’t my show . . . I’m just the opening act.” He staggers back into the van, points it toward the next town, dreams of someone thousands of miles away he can’t touch, and flips around the radio. Another life you’re glad you’re not living but equally glad he saw fit to describe.
The Truckers excel at making paralyzing grief palatable, and hopeless losers hopelessly beautiful. They rose to power in 2001 with the double-disc Southern Rock Opera, a brazenly ambitious attempt to both mythologize and emulate Lynyrd Skynyrd that succeeded wildly on both counts. Four CDs later, they’re still painstakingly articulating what they then described as “the duality of the Southern thing,” granting depth and humanity to a grotesque parade of incest perpetrators, backwoods fuckups, and shell-shocked Vietnam vets, and daring elitist city slickers to sneer. Creation’s Dark is tantalizingly easy to typecast via the song titles alone: “Daddy Needs a Drink,” “You and Your Crystal Meth,” “The Man I Shot.” Except dollars to doughnuts that last one’s set in Iraq, a grimy, brutal rocker with the familiar nausea of an Afghan Whigs dirge that describes a calamity much worse than a hangover or a bungled love affair, instead bemoaning a scared-shitless soldier’s act of self-defense and subsequent death sentence of sleepless nights. Never dismiss these characters—no matter how wayward, no matter how flawed—as simple, helpless country folk.
Which brings us to “Bob.”
“Bob” is the handiwork of Mike Cooley, the Truckers’ other songwriting mainstay. (Creation’s Dark also features the first batch of perfectly OK but unremarkable tunes from bassist Shonna Tucker, former paramour of tremendously remarkable songwriter Jason Isbell, who brought her into the band in the first place but recently bailed for a solo career—a nice Fleetwood Mac switcheroo all the more appropriate given that Shonna sounds like Stevie Nicks if Stevie fled Laurel Canyon for LSU.) A dear friend of mine swears Cooley will one day be hailed as a Great American Songwriter, and I’ll buy that: His slow ones are sublime-ly forlorn in a George Jones vein, while his fast ones boast a magnificent Jaggerian swagger, here flaunted on the rollicking “3 Dimes Down.” (Bonus points for using the evocative phrase “chicken-wing puke.”) Throughout the record, Cooley toys with corny Southern stereotypes, whether he’s refurbishing Matthew McConaughey’s famous Dazed and Confused proverb about high-school girls, or inventing his own bewildering bits of cracker-barrel wisdom: “Skeletons ain’t got no place to stick their money/Nobody makes britches that size.” But great googly moogly, does “Bob” ever drive straight into a ditch, Faulkner devolving instantaneously into Larry the Cable Guy. It’s a loping, finger-picked shuffle with all the nuance of a Coors Lite commercial. Chorus:
He likes to drink a beer or two every
now and again
He always had more dogs than he ever
Bob ain’t light in the loafers
He might kneel, but he never bends over
Now. My Cooley-worshipping friend swears that the “loafers/bend over” thing is the crux here, that the song’s point is to paint Bob as a normal, likable dude who just might be, well, you know. Fair enough. But it still feels tremendously slight, indulging in the jarring parade of cheesy clichés that the Truckers have nimbly sidestepped for years: Bob loves his momma, Bob prefers fishing to church, Bob’s a little unnerved by the 6 o’clock news, Bob drinks more beer. If you forced a pompous Wall Street hedge-funder who’d never been south of the Jersey Shore to write a condescending song about butt-simple red-state folk, you’d get “Bob,” and then you’d punch that guy in the face. It’s such a glaring, honking sour note from a dependably great songwriter in a dependably great band that I have to imagine it’s deliberate, it’s a put-on—a winking caricature that satirizes the prejudices of anyone who’d pick up this CD, fixate on the song title “You and Your Crystal Meth,” and dismiss the whole shebang as Hee Haw for unwashed butt-rockers. Stereotype this.
Thus, I have come to view “Bob” as a gift. A cautionary tale that had to be told. Creation’s Dark came out last month, and though past DBT discs have left me enthralled, I initially ignored this one. Took it for granted, disregarded it as more of the same. Dependably great, sure, but there were bigger, more exotic fish to fry. The Truckers had made it look so easy for so long, but “Bob” forcefully proves that it’s not, and it’s never been. It keeps you honest, and it scares you straight.
The Drive By Truckers play Terminal 5, March 26, terminal5nyc.com.