In a sentence:
Explicitly political and unflinching in its analysis of American society’s malaise, ‘The Unraveling’ is a barely disguised expression of revulsion.
When we last heard from Drive-By Truckers near the end of 2016, America was essentially embroiled in an undeclared civil war in the shape of a presidential election that eventually resulted in Donald Trump ascending to the White House. They responded to the encroaching sense of political chaos and national unease with their most political album yet in the shape of American Band, trying to resolve their identity as Southern rockers (albeit always with a more alternative take on the paradigm) with their progressive politics. Now on their 12th studio album and in their 25th year as a band, and with the very real possibility of the orange goon winning a second term in office, Drive-By Truckers have decided to double down on their recent approach on The Unraveling. Where the political elements manifested themselves as thematic undercurrents last time out, they’re now stated as explicitly as possible – in the titles, such as ‘Armageddon’s Back In Town’, ‘Grievance Merchants’ and ‘Babies In Cages’, and in twin songwriters/singers Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood’s plainspoken, angry yet hopeful lyrical style.
approach both works in The Unraveling’s favour and to its detriment, the
songs often standing or falling on the subtlety (or lack thereof) of the
sentiments expressed. It’s very difficult to do this kind of political soapbox
style in music without sounding overly earnest, and to Drive-By Truckers’
credit that they mostly succeed in avoiding the obvious pitfalls. Mostly, they
avoid blood-pumping industriousness, aside from lead single ‘Armageddon’s Back In Town’
and ‘Slow Ride Argument’ that appear back-to-back in the first third, both
workmanlike and which scan merely as tasters for what’s to come. Energy and
anger might be synonymous, but quiet rage is often much more effective, and
that’s what we get on ‘Grievance Merchants’ (taking on white supremacy) and ‘Heroin
Again’ (on the opioid crisis) which absolutely nail their intended targets.
is heavy in its
analysis of the assumptions and priorities of late-period capitalism,
unflinching when it comes to dismantling American society’s bullshit and
platitudes. On recent single ‘Thoughts And Prayers’,
a country-rocker examining the news coverage and aftermath of gun violence and
mass shootings, they go direct (“Stick it up your ass with
your useless thoughts and prayers” is its eventual refrain). Sometimes, their anger and sadness
is expressed via apologies to their children – “When my
children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain / It hurts me that I have
to look away” – and
it works, striking at the heart of the matter more than sloganeering could.
This technique is not quite as successful on ‘21st
Century USA’, aiming to be a ghostly snapshot of a precarious gig economy set
to keening honky-tonk, but its lyrics are slightly too much of a Nebraska-era
Springsteen parody and it all seems a bit on-the-nose. Yet even here, Drive-By
Truckers show how tight and quietly mesmerising they’ve become as a musical
unit over the years. The cryptic opener ‘Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun’ is
absolutely lovely, however, and showcases Cooley and Hood at their most
effective. Things are rounded
off neatly with the nine-minute ‘Awaiting Resurrection’, a magnificent and
understated slow-burner powered by organs.
albums are hard to get right, but Drive-By Truckers give it a mighty good go on
The Unraveling, a largely successful attempt at expressing progressive/liberal
attitudes through the mixed jumble of sounds and signifiers that Southern rock
can often entail. Politics and rock really can work. (7/10) (Ed Biggs)
Listen to The Unraveling by Drive-By Truckers here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, ATO, Brad Morgan, Drive-By Truckers, Ed Biggs, Jay Gonzalez, Matt Patton, Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, review, The Unraveling
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