Drive-By Truckers

Brighter Than Creation's Dark

(New West; 2008)

By David M. Goldstein | 3 February 2008

Whether due to internal strife or the rigors of endless touring, Drive-By Truckers didn’t bring their A-game on A Blessing And a Curse (2006), and they’ve all but admitted as much in recent interviews. Though hardly bereft of good songs, it was arguably the first Truckers record to feel more like a B-Sides comp than a proper album, lacking in cohesion and suffering from an abbreviated (for these guys) run-time that was likely a concession to their record label.

So now they’ve seemingly overcompensated with Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, a capital “D” Drive-By Truckers effort that fashions itself as something of a comeback with its seventy-five minutes and nineteen songs; clearly Patterson Hood and steadfast consigliere Mike Cooley aren’t fucking around. Then in a considerably bizarre twist, twenty-something wunderkind Jason Isbell is gone, but his now-ex-wife Shonna Tucker remains on bass and vocals. Plus they’ve added John Neff and Muscle Shoals veteran Spooner Oldham to fill out their sound with pedal steel and myriad electric keyboards.

Now about that runtime. This critic’s fifteen-year-old self, weaned on Phish and the Dead, was once of the belief that bands who couldn’t fill out 79:58 simply weren’t trying hard enough (more solos = better solos). Now I have minimal patience for anything over 52:00. If there’s any band, however, who might be the exception to the rule, it’s Drive-By Truckers, who with Southern Rock Opera (2001) and Decoration Day (2003) crafted albums that conventional wisdom would certainly consider overlong, but that contained no filler whatsoever. None. With Brighter we simply had the commonplace dilemma of a band incapable of being objective about its own work; a theory supported by the painstakingly detailed song-by-song write-ups that Patterson Hood included on his band’s website. Hood treats his songs like his children, which makes me feel like a jerk for stating that at least three of them should’ve been cut. That he’s still relying a bit too heavily on grim character sketches shouldn’t come as a surprise (Hood’s been DBT’s resident Debbie Downer since Decoration Day), but later album tracks like “Goode’s Field Road,” “The Home Front,” and “You and Your Crystal Meth” feature little in the way of memorable guitar melody or just feel tacked on. “Meth” in particular is a misstep, aiming to be the redneck answer to “The Needle and the Damage Done,” but rendered overly silly by echo-laden production effects and a heavy-handed rhyme scheme.

And so concludes my griping. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is clearly too long, and yet it’s still their best album since Decoration Day. How so? It helps that it’s easily the best sounding record that Drive-By Truckers have ever made. Up to this point, I’d have never really considered them to be a headphone listen, but there’s never been so much to listen for, nor has it ever sounded as crisp. John Neff’s pedal steel adds a new dimension to the band, winding its way like a river through tracks like Hood’s mellow “Daddy Needs a Drink,” while Spooner Oldham’s array of classic keyboards provides a perfect counterpoint. The leap in sound quality is especially noticeable on the acoustic tracks, where one can make out the brushstrokes on Brad Morgan’s snare drum alongside the hollow smack of woodblocks and sprightly banjo. And Neff’s greasy slide guitar on “3 Dimes Down”? Spectacular.

While I’d argue that there’s still too many of them, the majority of Patterson Hood’s tunes this time out are quality efforts. He has yet to regain the ribald sense of humor that he all but gave up on post-Southern Rock Opera, but he still usually backs up his world-weary lyrics with furious riffage, like on “The Righteous Path” (as in, a working class father’s struggle to stay on) and over the Iraq war pathos of “That Man I Shot” (“I did not hate him…was doing my job, maybe so was he”). Elsewhere he scores on the likely autobiographical, hawks-eye detailed tale of “The Opening Act” and wistful acoustic laments “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” and “Daddy Needs a Drink.”

But Hood’s contributions, while perfectly enjoyable, for once don’t constitute the soul of his band’s album. That mantle clearly falls to one Mike Cooley who’s writing over his head here. While he’s often been relegated to the role of not-quite co-frontman, Cooley owns this record. He brings the best riffs, best one-liners, and an “aw shucks” Southern huckster sense of humor that adds some sorely needed levity to counter Hood’s Eeyore streak. The Faithless Street-era Whiskeytown sounding “3 Dimes Down” is one of the funkiest, funniest DBT songs to date, focusing on John Neff’s slide wizardry and what Hood rightfully refers to as “[his] all-time favorite second verse on a Drive-By Truckers album” (something about being “Three dimes down and 25 cents shy of a slice of the Doublemint twins”). Cooley also proves he’s up on his rock history with “Self-Destructive Zones,” a hysterical and dead accurate account of the time period in which hair metal gave way to the likes of Nirvana. Not to mention how adept he is at goofy (but sympathetic) character sketches (“Bob”) or twangy A.M. Gold (“Lisa’s Birthday”); his witty quips stick (“It’s always Lisa’s birthday, when I get that call / Her car’s not where she parked it, it’s with her wallet and her phone…I get older and Lisa keeps on turning twenty-one”).

So, Cooley’s allotted seven songs, and Hood’s got nine, leaving three on the shoulders of odd-woman out, Shonna Tucker. While her presence doesn’t quite make up for the absence of her ex-husband’s songs, she still acquits herself well, especially on the spiritual-sounding “Purgatory Line” and “Home Field Advantage,” pop enough for Carrie Underwood and containing one of Brighter’s catchiest choruses. But excessive length aside, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark constitutes a solid rebound from the overly scattered A Blessing and a Curse. It features some of the best songs of Mike Cooley’s career, amazing slide guitar work, and a robust sound that will almost certainly prove richer on vinyl. And even if there’s maybe a little too much Patterson Hood here, I still give the man serious credit for continuing to trudge forward with what’s arguably America’s most relevant Southern rock band. He’s basically earned the right to do whatever the fuck he wants.