Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (2008)

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1. Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife 2. 3 Dimes Down 3. The Righteous Path 4. I’m Sorry Huston 5. Perfect Timing 6. Daddy Needs A Drink 7. Self Destructive Zones 8. Bob 9. Home Field Advantage 10. The Opening Act 11. Lisa’s Birthday 12. That Man I Shot 13. The Purgatory Line 14. The Home Front 15. Checkout Time In Vegas 16. You And Your Crystal Meth 17. Goode’s Field Road 18. A Ghost To Most 19. The Monument Valley

 

I got a new computer! And not a moment too soon, because my last one was made in 2008 and spent the last year or two of its existence having a fucking seizure every time I did so much as try to open two windows at once. How did people survive in the 90s? Not having a computer is one thing, because then you have the opportunity go off and do other things like watch TV, assault an elderly person, or pee into glass bottles and store them all over your apartment. On the other hand, dealing with a really slow, shitty computer is the worst kind of torture there is. I’d rather spend the night in Gitmo than have to use my five-year old piece of crap MacBook again.

Like overpriced electronics, rock bands also mature and sometimes deteriorate. Others actually grow and improve with age, like fine wine. Drive-By Truckers are among this latter category. And make no mistake: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark clearly marks the beginning of a new phase in the Truckers’ career: the “shit dude, we’re in our mid-40s now” phase. For most legacy rockers, this dreaded paradigm shift essentially amounts to a mid-life crisis, characterized by declining songwriting quality, misguided production experiments, and, worst of all, clueless attempts to remain hip like the bands all those crazy kids dig. DBT have never been cool, so they’re basically immune to that sort of pandering and avoid all the usual pitfalls. However, the strong whiff of maturity that infiltrated their sound all of a sudden following Isbell’s departure is impossible to ignore.

For instance, instead of coming roaring out of the gate like they had on their last two albums, Brighter starts of with strummed acoustic guitar, brushed drums, gentle piano, relaxed banjo pickin’, lilting pedal steel, and tender guy/girl harmonies courtesy of Patterson and Shonna. Sure, DBT had led off their albums with mellower songs before, but those earlier tunes were ribald singalongs about illicit sex and domestic abuse. “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife,” on the other hand, appears to be about a guy “lying round in bed on a Saturday morning” with his wife and kids. It’s much deeper than that, of course – Patterson wrote it after a musician friend of his from Virginia, Bryan Harvey, and his family were brutally murdered by an intruder. Still, the way Patterson writes about this subject (“It felt like home, it must be all right,” he coos) gives one the sense that after, spending basically ten years straight on the road, getting married (for the third, but presumably the last time) and having a kid had inalterably shifted his perspective as a songwriter. And that’s hardly a bad thing. No, “Two Daughters” does not RAWK, but it is possibly the most beautiful and heartbreaking song Patterson has ever written.

(Incidentally, in high school, I wrote an essay in which I used this song as part of an argument defending the death penalty. I’m not sure Patterson would approve, since he’s a reliable advocate for liberal causes – but then again, so am I. And the line “Is there vengeance up in heaven/Or are those things left behind?” makes me wonder if he wouldn’t have agreed with the essay’s premise. The question is, do I still agree with that premise? Well, I still think a crime as unfathomably atrocious as the Harvey murders should be punishable by death, but the existence of the Texas criminal justice system makes me wonder if we should just hold off on executing people until a few decades in the future, when we can absolutely 100% establish the guilt, intent, and mental soundness of the defendant using Minority Report-style mind-reading technology. But I suppose that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this review, so let’s move on.)

It’s not like DBT have abandoned the art of the loud rock song. On the contrary, since over the course of 19 songs and 75 minutes, they have time to try a little bit of everything. Indeed, for some, Brighter might invite the assertion that, left with the impossible task of replacing Jason, who officially left the band in early 2007, they attempted to fill the obvious void with songz, songz, songz – lots and lots of extraneous songs. Well, people have been arguing the same points about how this or that double album having too many songs since Blonde On Blonde came out, and I don’t particularly care to refute or corroborate them for the millionth time. Some people like them, some people don’t. It’s all a matter of taste, and I guarantee that any song you would cut from any given double album has cores of fans willing to defend its inclusion to the death (for instance, on this album, I think “The Monument Valley” has great lyrics, but is an overslick and anticlimactic album closer. Many DBT fans seem to consider it one of the best songs on the album. Who am I to say they should’ve cut it?).

But besides, making a long album isn’t even in the top four ways in which DBT compensated for Jason’s absence. Those are as follows:

1. John Neff. Trying to bring in a shit hot guitarist to replace Jason would have been a fool’s errand, so instead the band went a different route, giving an expanded role to someone who had sort of been in the fold going all the way back to Gangstabilly. Neff might be one of the best pedal steel players on the planet, and can handle a Les Paul just fine too. He’s probably the best technically skilled musician to have ever played with DBT. Well, except for maybe…

2. Spooner Oldham. The legendary Muscle Shoals keyboardist started playing with Patterson’s daddy way back in the mid-60s, and fortunately he agreed to grace almost every song on this album with his trademark Wurlitzer. He even gets a co-writing credit on the gentle “Daddy Needs A Drink.” DBT’s Muscle Shoals heritage was always an inherent, if subtle, part of their sound (read all about it here), but inviting Spooner to play with them marks the first time they embraced it so explicitly. And just picturing wizened old Spooner sitting back there behind his Wurley, smoothly tinkling away, kind of automatically endows DBT with some extra cred.

3. Shonna’s songwriting. Replacing Jason’s songwriting would have been even harder to do than replacing his guitar playing. So once gain, the band went in-house for a third songwriter, and wouldn’t you know it, they were able to fill in the slot with none other than Jason’s ex-wife. Six years after Brighter came out and more than two after she left the band, opinions on Shonna’s contributions to the DBT catalog are decidedly mixed among the band’s fanbase. But while no one would argue that she’s a lyricist on par with Hood and Cooley (“Home Field Advantage” is constituted of a series of very stupid baseball=relationship metaphors), I happen to think her songs never failed to fit in snugly with whatever the band was going for on each album they made with her as a songwriter. That’s especially true here, with “I’m Sorry Huston” and especially “The Purgatory Line,” which, with its atmospheric pedal steel drone, dreamy keys, and Shonna’s twang, I think could’ve been a huge hit in some alternate universe 80s in which mainstream country music hadn’t started sucking yet.

4. Turning the volume down. Prior to recording Brighter, as its first jaunt following Jason’s departure, DBT embarked on an acoustic tour, the Dirt Underneath tour, and its influence really shows on the record. Well, like I said, this is hardly a universal rule. “That Man I Shot,” the first of a three song suite exploring the human cost of Bush’s wars, features a three guitar squall as noisy as any worked up by the Isbell-era band; the Hold Steady-referencing “The Righteous Path” stomps convincingly; and Cooley’s fuzzy, Stonesy riff and hysterical lyrics on “3 Dimes Down” (“What’s a guy without a T. gonna get/Totally screwed while chicken wing puke eats the candy apple read off his Corvette” is just one of this song’s several glorious couplets) make it arguably the most purely fun song in DBT’s catalog. But for the most part, the electric guitar tones are cleaner, the acoustic guitars more prevalent, and the country influence stronger than they have been since Pizza Deliverance. Though this shift in sound may have come as a shock to all the fans who got on board post-Southern Rock Opera, it doesn’t bother me any. That’s because, for one, Patterson and Cooley had grown a ton as songwriters since the late 90s, and for another, Cooley is a great country singer! “Lisa’s Birthday” sounds like 60s Bakersfield gold to me, as do “Perfect Timing” and “Bob,” which I actually think is a kind of a brilliant ruminative vignette on American life despite its deceptively simple premise (“Bob goes to church every Sunday/Every Sunday that the fish ain’t biting”). I wrote an essay based on this song in high school too. I guess I couldn’t have written more essays about, like, classic literature and history and stuff. Some of my high school teachers didn’t really get me.

Basically, DBT reinvented themselves just enough to move on definitively from their earlier work without compromising what’s always made them great as a band – their songwriting. Basically, exactly what you’d want to hear from a band in their mid-40s. And lemme tell you – there aren’t many bands in their mid-40s that write songs as good as “A Ghost To Most” (one of seven Cooley songs on this record – still the most he’s ever had on one album). It’s both very plainspoken and completely enigmatic in that way that only Cooley can pull off, so lord knows what most of it actually means (Cooley’s own assessment, according to some of the press materials that accompanied the album’s release: “It’s really hard for me to find a suit that fits me right”). All I know is that if there’s ever been a lyric that perfectly if idiosyncratically captures the folly of the political and religious dogma that poisoned the United States during the Bush years—and sadly continues to do so in the Tea Party era—it’s the second verse of “A Ghost To Most.” “Talking tough is easy when it’s other people’s evil and you’re judging what they do or don’t believe/Seems to me you’d have to have a hole in your own to point a finger at somebody else’s sheet.” Pure fucking poetry.

God I love this band. I saw them live for 15th time last night. It was awesome.. I mean, fuck. You should go see them. Seriously.



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