Drive-By Truckers – A Blessing And A Curse

A Blessing And A Curse (2006)


1. Feb 14 2. Gravity’s Gone 3. Easy On Yourself 4. Aftermath USA 5. Goodbye 6. Daylight 7. Wednesday 8. Little Bonnie 9. Space City 10. A Blessing And A Curse 11. A World Of Hurt


Aaaaaaaaand we come crashing back to earth. Does it suck? Hell no… the day I find a Truckers album I think sucks all the way through will probably be the same day Sean Hannity runs off and gets gay married to Barack Obama in Benghazi, complete with the reading of vows they had scrawled on the back of discontinued Solyndra letterhead. However, after the absurdly confident and fully realized statements of brilliance that were Decoration Day and The Dirty South, A Blessing And A Curse finds the Truckers weirdly confused and unsure of themselves.

The primary instigator of this sudden downward gear shift, it seems, was Jason Isbell. Indeed, starting around the recording of Blessing, Jason became a source of turmoil in the band, both inter-personal and musical. As far as the former kind goes, that can mainly be attributed to his deteriorating marriage with Shonna Tucker. It’s easy to imagine how that situation might have gotten poisonous real quick for everyone involved. It’s tough enough to go through the Headed for a Divorce phase of a relationship when, after they’re done screaming at each other for the day, both parties have the space to go to the bar or sit in front of the TV and stew by themselves as they try to formulate a plan for getting away with murdering the other one in his or her sleep. It’s a hell of lot tougher to go through it when you spend 200 days a year riding around on a cramped tour bus with a dozen other people and nowhere to run. The lesson: never date the cute chick in your band. It won’t end well. Even irrespective of that whole predicament, Jason was also having problems with his drinking, and… well, everyone in this band drinks a lot, but Jason’s recent, well-publicized Come to Jesus-style sobriety would seem to indicate that there was an emotionally darker element to his problem.

And then there was his songwriting, which is hugely disappointing coming on the heels of his six previous contributions to the Truckers. I mean, he absolutely owned The Dirty South. Yeah, Patterson had “Puttin’ People On The Moon” and Cooley had “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” on that record, but Jason’s four songs were just mindblowingly good – I think it could be very convincingly argued that he upstaged Patterson and Cooley on that album. By comparison, his two songs on Blessing are rather baffling. I actually don’t mind the much-loathed “Daylight,” a shockingly wussified singer-songwriter effort that makes up for what in lacks in edge with a spine-tingling chorus money note courtesy of Mr. Isbell. Say what you want about his contributions to this album, but you can’t discount the man’s chops, particularly his vocal ones. Still, this song hardly sounds like it’s aimed at the kind of people who typically love DBT, either musically or lyrically (what in the fuck is a “barnacled mind,” pray tell?).

In that way, it’s somewhat indicative of a larger musical trend on this album that some accounts indicate Jason was the driving force behind. The band clearly made a conscious decision that they were gonna make a much more concise record—at 11 tracks and 47 minutes, it’s easily their shortest LP—and a more stylistically diverse one too – one without too much twang to be found, outside of their accents. I don’t want to say Jason was trying to push them in a more pop direction, because that’s a loaded assertion that inspires a whole set of assumptions in people—like he wanted to reach a crossover audience and open for Britney Spears or some shit—that is in this case irrelevant. And besides, I’m all for bands trying new things, and even if Blessing isn’t even close to being on the level of, say, Low as far as drastic sound remodeling efforts go, I’d say it was healthy for DBT to try to break out of the template they’d been more or less following since Southern Rock Opera.

The problem is that the ways in which they attempt to do so don’t play to their greatest strengths as a band—the sprawling storytelling, the irrevocable Southerness, the thematic heft—and in fact deliberately avoid them for the majority of the album. But you know what, the worst thing Jason did on this album isn’t persuade the band to leave its comfort zone (presuming he actually did so, of course, and the presumption is mostly just speculation after all) – it’s the Blue Oyster Cult “””””””””””””tribute”””””””” (godammit I cannot put enough quotes around that word) “Easy On Yourself.” Man, if DBT has ever done an outright shitty song, it’s this one. Now, I got nothing against “Don’t Fear The Reaper,” and I actually saw Patterson sing “Burnin’ For You” on stage with the Hold Steady in 2008 and it kicked ass. But that’s the thing – although the Truckers aren’t exactly a band that obscures their classic rock influences, this kind of bald, cheap, and incredibly dumb cover band-level imitation is something I expect from much, much lesser bands, not these guys. Then again, Patterson’s “Aftermath USA” is just as much of a Faces rip as “Easy On Yourself” is of Blue Oyster Cult and I fucking love it (hey, who ever said I was consistent?). Maybe it’s because I like the Faces more than I like Blue Oyster Cult. Maybe it’s because it’s got, you know, a sense of humor (“The welfare lady said enough is enough, the kids ain’t been to school in weeks/Crystal meth in the bathtub and blood splattered in the sink”). Or maybe it’s because it feels more spontaneous, which it actually was – producer David Barbe gets a co-writing credit because he actually spliced the backing track together, Frankenstein’s monster style, out of some riffs the band was fooling around with in between takes. Songwriting 101!

Whatever issues the whole paring down process I discussed may have caused, it also did the band some good in some ways. Patterson’s rockers are leaner, meaner, and even bitterer than before. “Feb 14” is, as far as I’m concerned, history’s greatest and perhaps only redeeming result of Valentine’s Day, which is, in the wise words of Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, “a fake holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people feel like crap.” The pounding drums and slightly dissonant guitars are bracing and unexpected, and I love Patterson’s slyly compounds clichés in the second verse (“They say time makes things easier but only time will tell/You said we’d go the distance but I guess it’s just as well”) – because how else would one communicate in a song about Valentine’s Day? “Wednesday” might be the fastest, noisiest song DBT has ever done, but also one of the most dejected, and features one of Patterson’s best ever lines – “They say every man’s house should be his palace/But his castle stank of cat shit and alone.” And then there’s the simultaneously gut-wrenching and gloriously life-affirming “A World Of Hurt,” which blows almost everything else here clear out of the water. To me, this song, with its lullaby-like chorus refrain (and pedal steel! They didn’t get rid of all the twang!) is infinitely more inspiring than any self-help seminar or Dr. Phil episode could ever hope to be. It’s great to be alive, indeed. Unfortunately, the remainder of Patterson’s songs don’t approach the same standard of quality. The title track has some cool guitar playing—it even gets a little bit Sonic Youth-y for a second in there, at least to my ears—but it never really goes much of anywhere. And “Goodbye” is even more aimless, being over six minutes of mellow Wurlitzer and kinda boilerplate lyrics about losing a friend.

So with Patterson and Jason displaying some inconsistency, as usual it’s up to Cooley to save the day and, as usual, he delivers like the badass he is. “Gravity’s Gone” might be his greatest ever collection of one liners – “If you were supposed to watch your mouth all the time I doubt your eyes would be above it” is some kinda backwoods Confucius shit, and whatever a “champagne hand job” is, I want one. Arrangement-wise, it’s also a much-needed shot of DBT conventionality, with some tasty Jason slide. Hitting the opposite end of the humor spectrum is the heartstring-wrenching, all-acoustic “Space City,” which will make you believe in transcendent and true love far more than the fucking Notebook ever will. It’s one thing to write a song about your grandma dying, but it’s another thing entirely to write it from the point of view of your grandma and absolutely fucking nail it… it rivals Ryan Adams’ classic “In My Time Of Need” in the prestigious Songs About In Love and Dying Old People category, and maybe even beats it out by virtue of coming from a real place rather than being a made up story. Goddamn, Cooley.

Even with its many highlights, it’s impossible to listen to Blessing without feeling like something is amiss. Of course, we now all have the gift of hindsight and know that there was something amiss. But even if we didn’t, it just feels like DBT was trying to be a different band. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, you know?

Hey, some phrases are clichés for a reason. Gimme a break. We can’t all be Cooley.

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