The Unraveling

Drive-By Truckers

ATO Records, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In November 2016 the mood among my creative peer group of writers of a certain age was dark and growing darker. The election results felt to every one of us like a giant step backwards for our nation. Still, there was an upside if you looked hard enough. “Yeah,” said one charter member of our group, “but the art is going to be GREAT.”

Drive-By Truckers sensed the current train wreck coming before it happened, sounding a stark warning about the state of the nation with 2016’s brutal American Band. DBT songwriters and co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley return in 2020 with The Unraveling, a harrowing portrait of a once-proud nation that has lost its moral compass and slipped into the very abyss it once helped others try to escape.

Context is always essential, of course, but maybe even moreso with the DBT. Co-founders Hood and Cooley were born and raised in the Deep South—Hood is the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood, and Hood and Cooley met at the University of Alabama—and their songs draw on the complex legacy and current reality of that region. I compared the DBT’s 2004 album The Dirty South to “a short story collection—Faulkner with a modern twist, full of late 20th century Southern gothic characters.” The canvas for The Unraveling is wider, but its frame of reference remains the same.

In tackling their second album in a row of explicitly political songs, Hood says he and Cooley had to ask themselves “How do you write about the daily absurdities when you can’t even wrap your head around them in the first place? I think our response was to focus at the core emotional level.” One look at the song titles, rife with Bibles and guns, Armageddon, heroin, grievance merchants, and babies in cages, and you understand the Drive-By Truckers let that raw emotional core loose and left everything they had on the studio floor.

Said studio—Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, built in 1962 by the man who shaped the sound of early rock and roll—no doubt contributed to the elemental power of this album. Opener “Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun” eases you in with an impressionistic fable of being “twenty-five and on the run” north to Memphis and an escape from the oppressive life Rosemary and her lover are trying to leave behind. With that evocative setup, “Armageddon Comes To Town” goes off like a bomb, its fat electric hook exploding in your ears as the song builds from there until an increasingly desperate Hood sings “When it all comes down, Armageddon’s back in town / You can’t tell the rabbit from the hat.” Next, Cooley chimes in with “Slow Ride Argument,” big, pleasantly distorted guitars driving a tune whose fevered restlessness lets up only for a two-line bridge that asks nothing more than the impossible: “Slow down take it easy / There’s no going home again.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Just when you might expect them to ease off on the intensity, it ratchets up, with a twist. The next tune features twin acoustic guitars and a bounding bassline counterpointing the album’s bitterest and most unforgiving lyric, as “Thoughts And Prayers” rages against the feckless, corrupt leadership that refuses to take any meaningful action to prevent school shootings. “The Powers That Be are in for shame and comeuppance / When Generation Lockdown has their day / They’ll throw the bums all out and drain that swamp for real / Perp walk them down the Capitol steps and show them how it feels.” That sense of responsibility for the world we’re leaving our children also pervades “21st Century USA,” a wistful catalogue of the sins and failures that have brought us to this moment.

The second half opens with the gothic Southern Rock of “Heroin Again,” the one tune here that feels like it crosses the line from argument into harangue (“Silly young man why you using heroin? / I thought you knew better than that”). Ah, but then you arrive at the beating heart of this album, the devastating, unmerciful lament “Babies In Cages.” Against a dark, funk-inflected beat, Hood sings his heart out, apologizing to his children for the world they will inherit while asking the question at the root of it all: “Are we so divided / That we can’t at least agree / This ain’t the country that our grandpas fought for us to be? / Babies in cages.”

In the home stretch, Cooley returns to the mike to take on the “Grievance Merchants” who fan the flames of the victim complex animating the far right: “Merchants selling young men reclamation / Merchants selling old men back their dreams.” It’s a big-boned, rather Neil Young-ish rocker that eventually gives way to the eerie opening of final track “Awaiting Resurrection.” Against spare, foreboding bass and drums, Hood takes the listener by the hand and draws us inexorably into the swirling heart of darkness: “Guns and ammunition / Babies in a cage / They say nothing can be done / but they tell us how they prayed / In the end we’re just standing / Watching Greatness Fade.”

“I’m sorry we’ve forsaken every lesson we’ve been taught,” sings Hood at one point, and it’s that sense of responsibility that haunts and drives the narrators of these songs. If American Band warned of the coming storm, The Unraveling takes the measure of the devastation that’s been wrought in just three years, and the ugly debts our current leaders are leaving at the feet of the generations to follow. This album is a hard listen, but no harder than the last few years.

Rating: A-

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