Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day

Decoration Day (2003)

A 

1. The Deeper In 2. Sink Hole 3. Hell No, I Ain’t Happy 4. Marry Me 5. My Sweet Annette 6. Outfit 7. Heathens 8. Sounds Better In The Song 9. (Something’s Got To) Give Pretty Soon 10. Your Daddy Hates Me 11. Careless 12. When The Pin Hits The Shell 13. Do It Yourself 14. Decoration Day 15. Loaded Gun In The Closet

 

Well, fuck. Talk about a follow up. I guess once you’ve done the rock ‘n roll equivalent of going from wallowing at the bottom of your division one year to taking the pennant the next (and just for fun let’s say the transition from Gangstabilly/Pizza Deliverance to Southern Rock Opera was just that), you don’t stand pat, you load up even more and go for the Series crown. That’s exactly what DBT did by snatching young gunslinger Jason Isbell off waivers, turning their re-stocked three-guitar lineup into the most fearsome in all the land. Jason, hailing from Green Hill, Alabama, just a stone’s throw away from Muscle Shoals, was a mere 22 years old and still fat-faced and shaggy-haired upon taking over for Rob Malone just a few days after the release of SRO. He’d been a guitar prodigy since his teenage years in the Shoals community, and his introduction into the Truckers’ lineup provided the band with a previously unprecedented source of instrumental flash that alone would have been enough to elevate them into whole other gear.

Jason, however, had more to contribute beyond twiddlin’ skillzz. Two days after joining the band, he wrote “Decoration Day,” which is like coming up with the Theory of Relativity two days after starting college. Nah, actually, it’s never been my absolute favorite Jason song, but I cannot deny the power of that spooky guitar intro or the Hatfield & McCoy-style storyline… though it ain’t made up. When I saw Jason do an acoustic show a couple years back, he revealed the song’s roots in his family’s history, and in particular his great-grandpa, who got off of a murder charge thanks to the classic Alabama “He Needed Killin’” defense. No doubt the tune is embellished a bit, through, which certainly can’t be said about Jason’s other contribution, the father’s day anthem “Outfit.” Sentimental without being the least bit sappy, it’s singalongable enough to be a Southern frat boy go-to drinking song, but at the same time way more real than anything you’ll hear on country radio these days. Still, ten years later, it’s just begging for a Brad Paisley or a Tim McGraw to cover it and turn it into a huge hit. Dierks Bentley, who’s given some lip service to the Truckers in the past, was an ideal candidate until a couple years ago when he got into a Twitter war with Jason after Dierks plagiarized Jason’s song “In A Razor Town” with his shitty jingoistic hit “Home.” Oh well.

Though the immediacy of the new guy’s impact on Decoration Day is impressive, he still only wrote two songs on the record. Thus, the larger part of the record is devoted to Patterson and Cooley making an important transition: away from “rock opera” mode and back to just writing another batch ‘o songs. Make no mistake, there’s a thematic cohesion present on all DBT’s post-SRO albums – on this one, for instance, a constant thread of portrayals of deteriorating (or completely deteriorated) relationships is strung throughout. Indeed, it’s not like they could have just gone back to making records like Pizza Deliverance after a transformative effort like SRO. Yes, it’s true that the opener “The Deeper In” was written in 1998. And yes, it’s cut from the same musical cloth as “Bulldozers And Dirt.” And yes, it’s about brother/sister incest. But it’s no ribald redneck joke like “The President’s Penis Is Missing” – it’s actually kind of a heartbreaking true story about a real couple that Patterson read a magazine article about (though they served their time in Wisconsin, not Michigan, as the lyrics claim – “Wisconsin” had too many syllables in it to fit the meter, I guess). In that way, the song fits a lot better here than it would have on Pizza Deliverance. Cause they started writing different kinds of songs after SRO; bigger-sounding songs befitting of the well-oiled rock machine the band had become after essentially spending two straight years touring. Songs with big, crunching riffs and delectably greasy guitar weaving like “Sink Hole” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”; songs about suicide and divorce and murdering lawyers and fuckin’ up. Dark songs. Really fucking dark songs.

Yup, I’d say a plurality of DBT fans consider Decoration Day the band’s finest work, but I have difficult time mustering up A+-level enthusiasm for it, just cause it’s such a depressing mother of an album. Not that I’m some happy-go-lucky puppy dog who demands cheer and merriment surrounding me at all times (ask anyone who has, I dunno, interacted with me for more than five seconds). Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, a gut-punching downer of a record if there ever was one, is probably one of my five favorite albums of all time, for instance. But goddamn, some light at the end of the tunnel would be appreciated. Of course, early on in the track sequence, Cooley’s “Marry Me” comes barreling in like the best big ol’ good time rocker that Mick and Keith just never got around to writing (and anyone that dares mention the chord sequence’s similarity to that of the Eagles’ “Already Gone” around me might as well be asking to get kneed in the nuts. It’s like saying Joan of Arc and Nicholas Sarkozy are the same person because they’re both from France). It’s one of the greatest repositories of one-liners I know of in a rock song. “My daddy didn’t pull out/But he never apologized” is pretty good, but I think my favorite is “Just cause I don’t run my mouth don’t mean I got nothing to say.” I’m with ya, Cooley. Even-keeled, mumbling writers of the world unite.

But after that, there’s only one final moment of buoyancy on the record, and that’s “Outfit.” So tracks 7-15 are just a relentless descent into deeper and deeper misery. By the end of “Your Daddy Hates Me,” which is about exactly what it sounds like and is so fucking slow and heavy it’s like they’re daring you to break down in tears, I’m about ready to slit my wrists. Which is convenient, because two tracks later, there’s a two-song suite about the suicide of a friend of the band. PERFECT. Not that all those songs aren’t absolutely brilliant (except possibly “Do It Yourself,” which despite the nice Stonesy riffing leaves a bit of a weird taste in my mouth… the story behind it and Cooley’s country-soul counterpoint “When The Pin Hits The Shell” is one of the few true-life song origins that the band hasn’t spoken about publically very much, so I don’t know the background and thus have no basis to judge Patterson for reacting the way he did. But no matter how big of a jerk the guy may have been, a line like “You’d rather die than take a stab at living/Nothing would kill you so you do it yourself” strikes me as a bit disrespectful)… Patterson’s lovely “Heathens” especially. It’s the very fact that all those songs are all so fucking good and hard-hitting that makes them so hard to take all in a row like that if you’re not in the right mood. Fortunately, no matter what mood you’re in, Cooley swoops in at the end to save the day with the stripped-down “Loaded Gun In The Closet,” my pick for best song on the album. It’s hardly uplifting, not by a long shot, but it’s certainly one of the most ambiguous and thought-provoking country songs you’re liable to hear. The premise seems simple enough—a stay-at-home wife sits around the house and dotes on her cantankerous husband, with John Neff’s pedal steel fills providing some perfect coloring—but analysis of why he put the gun in the closet belongs in a college literature classroom, not on some dumb blog. Have at it, academia!



2 Comments

  1. victoid wrote:

    Are any of these tunes as beautifully, disembowelingly depressing as Sister Morphine, Workingman’s Hero or St. James Infirmary? These are all masterworks, musically and lyrically.
    Are The Truckers at this level here?

    • Jeremy wrote:

      Only “Your Daddy Hates Me” is as heavy handed as something like “Sister Morphine,” and I think it’s a bit on the nose compared to most of the other stuff here. Cooley’s “Sounds Better In The Song” has the same kind of stark arrangement and desolate feel as something like “Working Class Hero.” Really your best bet for getting the feel of this album is the title track, which I think is brilliant and most DBT/Isbell fans probably like better than I do.


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