When I heard that the new Drive-by Truckers record — due Friday via ATO and currently streaming at NPR First Listen — was called American Band and was their “most explicitly political album” ever, I cringed a bit.
Not because the band isn't capable of tackling sensitive topics with poise and occasional brilliance. They've frequently done so over the course of their 20-year career. This is a band that came to fame dissecting “the duality of the Southern thing” on a rock opera that took a long, hard look at the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd and George Wallace while still finding solace in Muscle Shoals and a progressive racial legacy. From their 1996 debut up until their last LP, 2014's English Oceans, their albums have been littered with topical songs that bring a blue collar perspective while holding feet to the fire of the most conservative and backward impulses of Southern — and American — culture.
No, what concerned me the most was how ham-handed even our best songwriters can become when they set their minds to making political statements. This is perhaps due to some psychic scarring left by Neil Young's blunt and lumbering 2006 salvo Living with War, which found zero subtlety in its (somewhat half-baked) indictment of George W. Bush. Political songs seem best when trapped like lightning in the bottle, as Young did all those years ago on “Ohio.”
These concerns were heightened by American Band’s advance singles: “Surrender Under Protest” is a charging but underwhelming rocker from Mike Cooley dulled by the wordy lyricist's recent tendency to lean too far into poetic abstraction. That paired with a chorus (“Compelled but not defeated / Surrender under protest if you must”) that can't decide whether it deserved weathered resignation or gang-vocal fervor left me uneasy. Patterson Hood's follow-up, “What It Means,” does a great deal better handling the emotional tenderness surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, but it also featured a few well-meaning clunkers (“If you say it wasn't racial / When they shot him in his tracks / Well, I guess that means that you ain't black / It means that you ain't black”).
Still, both singles showed that band hadn't lost its musical touch — “Surrender Under Protest” rides that lean, riff-heavy approach that emerged with great success on English Oceans, while the latter is a stately mid-tempo ballad with some of Hood's most aching vocals and Benmont Tench-style organ from keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, long an unheralded X factor.
As it turns out, the album — in addition to being incredibly relevant and important for a band as “white,” “Southern” and “rock” as the Drive-by Truckers — is actually pretty damn good. I'd even rank it among the best of the group's latter-day output following the exit of the now-skyrocketing Jason Isbell.
American Band is not an album of slogan-filled polemics taking dead aim at hot button issues. Instead, it offers a lot of what makes the Truckers great — big guitars, story-driven songwriting, distinct lyrical perspectives. There's an incredible character sketch from Cooley (replete with steely guitar interplay) on the opening “Ramon Casino,” which casts his typical withering eye toward the true-life tale of NRA leader Harlon Carter and the murder of 15-year-old Ramón Casiano on the U.S.-Mexican border. Hood’s travelogue-meets-school shooting tune “The Guns of Umpqua” conjures a distant, heartfelt sadness, acknowledging the privileged, television-only perspective through which so many of us view these incidents.
There are also rollicking good-time jams, familiar in the band's oeuvre. The sauntering Stones-esque swagger of “Kinky Hypocrite” shows off Cooley's dual penchants for Dylan-esque rambles and greasy guitars, lampooning moral leaders for their sexual peccadilloes.
The band also doesn't lean relentlessly political. Indeed, some of the best songs here only tangentially touch on the major themes of the record. Cooley's “Filthy and Fried” — another riff-heavy number, one that finds him singing with big, brassy regret about the foibles and failures of youth — is a highlight. Another is “Ever South,” Hood's sweeping, multi-generational origin story of Southern culture shot through with Scots-Irish immigrant pride — expressing sympathy for the struggles of his own ancestors rather than an attacking their racism. It even manages to link up with his recent move to the West Coast and recognizes the moving target that is the idea of “the South.”
The last two tunes crystallize the competing impulses of the record. Cooley's “Once They Banned Imagine” is a tender piano ballad that ties its titular circumstance to the doomed destiny of history repeating itself, while Hood's raw, grungy and spare “Baggage” is a torn exploration of extended personal depression. This is what the band has always been about — rarely delineating the personal from the political, the act of protest from the act of creative expression.
American Band succeeds because the Truckers avoid pigeonholing their aspirations. While most of the buzz and fervor about this record will be because of its explicit political nature, it ultimately casts its thematic and emotional nets far wider than today’s headlines.