Drive-by Truckers - American Band
When there’s no Wes Freed artwork adorning the cover of a Drive-by Truckers record you know that something’s afoot. Freed’s paintings have been a feast for the eyes ever since the band started. This time there’s a stark image of the American flag at half mast, and the title: American Band. This is all part of the package; DBT at their most political. They’ve got things to say. For the second record in a row Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood trade songs, each writing and singing their own tracks, and, like 2014’s English Oceans, it’s surprising how perfectly they fit to complete the albums whole.
Another difference from the band’s previous work is that American Band is about today. It’s about the America that exists in 2016. Previously they’ve focused their writing on the past and their music’s roots have been in history, and the Truckers take on America’s past. The lyrics of opener ‘Ramon Casiano’, murdered in 1931 by prominent National Rifle Association (or the NRA) leader the late Harlon Carter, rings as true today, with the Trump talk of building a giant wall between Mexico and the US, as it ever has (“It all started with the border / And that’s still where it is today”). It’s some opening gambit, taking on the power of the NRA, and there are no punches pulled.
Race is tackled head on, vividly on ‘What It Means’ and it’s chorus (“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks / Well I guess that means that you ain’t black”), and the current terrible spate of high school shootings is brought to life descriptively on ‘Guns Of Umpqua’ and its first person perspective flipping between the horror of being a victim ("Hear the sound of shots and screams out in the hallway") and memories of happier times camping in the wild. These are special songs, gripping and vital for today’s society.
The band also take on the American phenomenon of television evangelists, skewering them on ‘Kinky Hypocrite’, as well as a more personal approach from Patterson Hood on the double header of ‘Ever South’, ruminations on what it means to be Southern for both good and bad (“Barack Obama won / And you can choose where to eat / But you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.”), and ‘When The Sun Don’t Shine’, about his new home state of Oregon. Possibly the best is saved for right at the last as ‘Baggage’, sparked off by the death of Robin Williams, is an intimate and touching rumination on depression, the consequence of it, and how closely it touches Hood (“Fighting with the baggage that is pulling down on me”), while also taking issue with the media’s attitude (“Some asswipe on the TV said / You should be ashamed”). The lyrics and sentiment will melt your heart.
But amongst this lyrical and thematic anger and frustration is some of the band’s best musical work too. Whether it’s restrained and understated, or loud and angry, the melodies and riffs are uniformly fantastic, meaning the record works on any level. What the Drive-by Truckers eleventh studio albums shows is that they’re back at the top of their game, re-energised and reinvigorated after a slightly fallow start to the decade. American Band proves that this is one of the most vital bands of the last twenty years. A troubling and sad view of the state of things in 2016 but shining a much needed light on some of the ills of society. Oh, and if you don’t already get it, this is one of the albums of the year.