Possibly the greatest band whom Pitchfork consider it beneath them to review, Drive-By Truckers aren’t just an American Band (the name of their wonderful last album), they’re a great American Band. And they constantly question what it is to be American, what it is to be a band: defiantly Southern in attitude, they’re proud of their Alabaman roots, yet ashamed of some of the more unsavoury aspects of the state’s history; defiantly traditional in their musical heritage (you know the joke – they play both types of music, country AND western), they’ve nevertheless moved the idea of a country-rock band into fresh territory with an ever-shifting lineup, one which has seen acts such as Jason Isbell and his ex-wife Shonna Tucker come and go as songwriters and lead guitarists/bassists. But the core of the band has always been Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, two equally adept singer-songwriters (although Hood is more prolific), who have been concerning themselves with the lives of ordinary Southern folk for many a year now. The lives they conjure up in their songs are rich, dark, complex, and filled with dualities – a challenge to simplistic portrayals of the Southern states that have been used to bolster a bitter class prejudice.
So they care about people, but not just their own people – American Band was a haunted cry of despair at the racism and gun crime fatalities plaguing the entire nation, a United States they feared wasn’t united at all. And so it’s proven. 3 years later, The Unraveling comes as a haunted sequel to that pre-President Donald Trump record, surveying the aftermath of the 2016 election and coming to the unsurprising conclusion that, dang it, things have actually gotten worse.
There was an optimistic undertow to American Band, from the fast clip of many of the songs to the moving handclaps-in-solidarity of “What it Means”, a sense that unity both within and outside the band would see them through. That optimism has pretty much entirely evaporated on The Unraveling, which is easily their darkest, slowest, and most morose album. Despair has seeped into every guitar strum, every drum plod, every bass crawl to the finish line.
Its clear antecedent, to my ears, is Neil Young’s 1975 classic Tonight’s the Night. That album sounds stupefied with pain, its attempts to rock out forced and mechanical in the face of Young’s experiences with so many senseless deaths from drugs. The parallel on The Unraveling is not just evident in the bleak drug ballad “Heroin Again” (“Didn’t ’71 teach us anything?/Didn’t ’94 teach us anything?” they sing, and could just as well have added “Didn’t Neil Young in ’75 teach us anything?”). It’s in the slow, bummed out music that backs so many of the pessimistic lyrics, with the guitars crunching in aimless abandon more than for any other reason.
The Unraveling is unfailingly weary. I mean, it starts off with an oblique character study called “Rosemary With a Bible and a Gun” that’s keyed to a depressive piano, and follows it up with a spirited rocker with great, stirring work from the rhythm section and Patterson Hood on vocals that could trick you into being somewhat uplifted until you notice that the title happens to be “Armageddon’s Back in Town”. And things just go further downhill from there, with titles such as “21st Century USA” and “Babies in Cages” giving fair warning of what’s to come.
Speaking of “Babies in Cages”, it would be easy to dismiss a song about Trump’s most obviously heartless policy decision as just too obvious. I’m sure Pitchfork would. But Drive-By Truckers have always been admirably direct with their politics; abstract theory and obscurantism are not what’s required to deal with creeping fascism. “Babies in Cages” hits hard because it’s so obvious as a protest song. Why has no other American band protested the separation of parents and children at the country’s border? Do they consider themselves above mere protest songs? Drive-By Truckers don’t, and it’s to their immense credit.
Truth be told, The Unraveling isn’t as consistent in its songwriting as American Band. Mike Cooley’s two contributions don’t anywhere near rival his best, although “Grievance Merchants” gets in some good jabs at incel culture and the media that helps to perpetuate it. And Patterson Hood only gets in one song on the same level as any of the last album’s greats: “Thoughts and Prayers”, which among other things contains the inspirational quip “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers”.
But The Unraveling is still unique and haunting, both in the Drive-By Truckers’ catalogue and amongst albums released by their peers. Its unflinching, broken-hearted survey of the carnage of American culture is one for all of the rock fans out there who prefer Plastic Ono Band to Band on the Run. It finishes with a memorable, despairing 8 minute song that, frankly, sounds like the end of the world. It’s a slow plod through the evils of the world that matches The Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” for sheer existential horror. And it finishes, devastatingly, with this gut punch: “In the end we’re just standing/Watching greatness fade/Into darkness, awaiting resurrection”.
It’s up to you to decide whether those lines contain any shred of hope. I know what I think. But whatever you decide, they’re sure to stick with you. Much like the rest of the album.