The Upshot: Pure Truckers from start to finish, yet still an unsettling affair originally intended as a battle cry that ultimately became an epitaph.
BY FRED MILLS
One of 2016’s best albums—it landed on numerous top 10 lists among this publication’s writers, for example—American Band, nevertheless, has an oddly discomforting side to it that can’t be avoided. It’s the unintended/unforeseen byproduct of the recent presidential election. Released at the end of September in time to ensure its political statements were heard prior to November 8, the Drive-By Truckers’ 11th studio album may have been pitched as a battle cry, but it was clearly also intended to serve, ultimately, as a triumphant musical speech for the red, white, and true. Even the accompanying “Darkened Flags” tour (a nod at American Band song “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn”) was supposed to become a victory lap, commencing a mere week before the election.
And then the unthinkable happened. Or did it? Tea-leaf readers and outsider polling mavericks aside, the Truckers are born-and-bred Southerners, and both of their songwriters, guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, have consistently chronicled the attitudes and actions of the white working class with whom they share roots. Did the band sense, subliminally or otherwise, what the mainstream media did not? Viewed that way, American Band, though revealing and righteous in its examination of the unsettling, frequently tragic, undertones of the country, could also be read as an epitaph.
The aforementioned song about flags, for example, offers the initially elegant, but now prophetic, phrase “The baggage that you take defines the things that you become”; while later, in “Ever South,” the lines “But despite our intentions, it pains me to report/ We keep swinging for the fences, coming up a little short” pop up like red warning flags stuck on a lawn whose grass has been painted blue. And a section of “What It Means,” which references both directly and obliquely the deaths of innocent young black men, was no doubt originally penned as an observation but now reads so bleakly as to be a capitulation to the dark forces that have overtaken our society: “It happened where you’re sitting, wherever that might be/ And it happened last weekend and it will happen again next week…They’ll spin it for the anchors on the television screen/ So we can shrug and let it happen without asking what it means.”
Musically, the album is a reassuring stew of tried-and-true DBT tropes, from twangy, Southern-friend roots rock and garagey, gunslinging raveups, to moody folk-rock meditations and sturdy, hookish anthemism. Hood and Cooley share songwriting and singing duties fairly equally, solid and complementary as ever. Yet even there, it seems that a sense of unease is holding the band back from really cutting loose like on some previous albums.
For vinyl lovers, initial copies of the LP come pressed on a visually pleasing dark magenta vinyl, and there’s a bonus picture sleeved 45 included of the track “Kinky Hypocrite,” a Cooley-penned honky-tonker that also appears on the CD and digital versions as a mid-album track. It seems a bit curious that it wouldn’t also be positioned as an end-of-record bonus track for those iterations, but in any event, the tune’s no throwaway.
DOWNLOAD: “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” “What It Means,” “Ever South”