A Blessing and a Curse
’m buying it. I’m buying all of it—the Skynyrd references, the cheeky album titles, the “We just wanna rock” schtick, the pickup trucks, the whiskey binges, the trailer parks, the sweet ‘n’ sour women. The Drive-By Truckers speak in a vernacular, but that vernacular is wholly sincere, without a shred of irony or superiority. I believe it because when they poke fun, it’s often at their own expense; because they’ve survived the increased attention paid to the Southern states; because their self-serious, post-Southern Rock Opera (their first album that came with expectations) Decoration Day remains their most consistent and affecting work.
But I also believe there’s a difference between a mostly oblivious, balls-to-the-swamp Southern boogie group like Skynard or ZZ Top and a band that appears on the cover of No Depression and releases demo-filled solo albums with songs about Cat Power. So while Patterson Hood and Co.’s adoration for Southern Rock is legit and uncompromised, don’t get it twisted: Drive-By Truckers are an indie rock band, and they do a lot of indie rock things, including having a lot of indie rock influences. The Truckers’ early records—through Southern Rock Opera—were ballistic fun partly because they were an unabashedly Southern rock band, but also because they were an unabashedly Southern rock band that seemed to be taking cues from the Replacements, the Minutemen, and the Meat Puppets.
Since Southern Rock Opera, the band’s sound has gotten sharper, but it’s also become more streamlined. They still “rock,” but they do so more rationally, and more plainly. A Blessing and a Curse easily qualifies as the Truckers’ most straightforward album. The songwriting duty is still split between the six-stringers—Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell—but aside from the tonal quality of their voices, the differences between the three are harder to discern.
Three years ago, they were the best group of narrative songwriters in a genre (indie rock) that desperately needed—and needs—the solidity and familiarity that such structures provide. But whereas Hood was once able to turn a magazine story about incestuous siblings into a bespeckled, flowing album opener, he now gives us “Feb. 14,” an upbeat, eager rock tune where he sings, “They same time makes things easier / But only time can tell.”
Isbell is similarly vague and uninspired on “Easy on Yourself,” working a chorus of “Don’t be so easy on yourself / ‘Cause this one might be all that you have left,” seemingly bent on answering a question about an alt-country Pearl Jam that I don’t think anyone was asking. Collins, long the band’s secret weapon, fares better, turning in several stunners on “Gravity’s Gone” (referring to white folks as “us small-dicks”) but the band’s crooked-nose longtooth gets all gooey on “Space City.” Usually one of these guys can pick up the slack when the other two get winded, but all three seem strangely neutered here; their talking-points are still the same, but their stories are less empathetic, lacking the humanity of albums past.
Patterson is still a captivating presence when rolling downhill—on “Wednesday,” with the Truckers pushing the tempo, he turns childish I-can-do’s into lonely independence, his protagonist’s distanced crush taunting, “I could hold my breath until next Wednesday / And still be doing fine,” but he leaves the brilliant chorus on the floor after only one go-round. The rest of the album rarely deviates in tempo or texture, their influences more transparent, their arrangements more tired (“Little Bonnie” fails to differ substantially from Decoration Day’s “My Sweet Annette”).
I’m willing to follow this band a long way, but their perplexing lack of humor and nuance has left me basically unwilling to cue up a five-minute song titled, “A Blessing and a Curse.” You can basically write a recipe for a Truckers album these day, one A Blessing follows too closely: Here goes: that kind of town (check), those times (check), “the bottom” (check), starting out with nothing (check), shotguns (check), and jaded, cynical music critics writing frustrated reviews (…check).