I’ll start this review off by saying something I’ve never said about any record before in my life. This album is a social masterpiece. The lyrical content and sound are beyond anything I’ve ever listened to before. To say that this album is powerful is doing it an injustice. Powerful does not even come close to speaking to what these songs are and the feelings they evoke. Anger, sadness, helplessness, joy and fear. They are all present and accounted for. While listening to this record I realized pretty quickly that it was an emotional rollercoaster. The feelings it stirred literally gave me goosebumps at every turn.
This album takes a sharp turn from the norm even on its album cover. Instead of the usual artwork of Wes Freed , there is a dark and somber photo of an American flag at half-staff. And the first song, Ramon Casiano, jumps right into the theme the rest of the album will follow. The song recounts the true story of a confrontation between two teenagers that resulted in the killing of Casiano by fellow teen Harlan Carter. Carter escaped incarceration. He later worked for the U.S. Border Patrol and became a President of the NRA . Harlan has been credited as the man who transformed the organization from a sporting organization into an absolutist gun rights group. “He had the makings of a leader/Of a certain kind of man/Who need to feel the world’s against them/ Out to get ’em if he can. Men whose trigger pull their fingers/ Of men who’d rather fight than win/ united in a revolution/like in mind and like in skin.”. Cooley is pulling no punches. He’s taken the gloves off without apology and without shame.
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have always been prolific songwriters. And the content of their songs have always delved deeply into social and political arenas. Sure, there are plenty of songs that are just fun, but the reality of it has always been that these two men write and sing about things that matter. Upon first listen, I knew that the band would face some backlash due to the overtly political nature of these songs. I was correct. Facebook pages and message boards were bombarded by messages from irate fans demanding that the band stop discussing politics and stick to songwriting. Many “fans” said they’d never listen to the band again. Some spewed much uglier rhetoric. The band was accused of hurling a “white guilt” message at its fans for its sympathy towards the “Black Lives” movement. They were berated for “political correctness” and “selling out”. As I sat back and took it all in, it amazed me. This band has always been political. And their politics have quite obviously never tilted towards the right. In the 20 year career of DBT, their songs were always rife with references to social, economic and racial inequality. They have always been quick to derail hypocrisy and southern sterotypes. This album takes these themes to a whole new level. Its songs speak to an urgency, a call to arms about the moral and ethical crisis we are dealing with as a nation. There is no room for subtlety in such tumultuous times, and the band has abandoned all pretense of it. While the large minority of DBT fans may have missed the innuendo of politics on some earlier albums, there is no mistaking it any longer. Cooley and Patterson shoved it right down our throats this time. And the beauty of its brutal truth is astonishing and terrifying at once.
In addition to Ramon Casiano, some of the other incredibly powerful songs on the album include Guns of Umpqua, about a community college shooting in Oregon as told through the eyes of a combat veteran “And now we’re moving chairs in some panic mode to barricade the doors/ As my heart rate surges on adrenalin and nerves, I feel I’ve been here before/ I made it back from hell’s attack in some distant bloody war/ Only to stare down hell back home.” and the extremely somber yet powerful What It Means, which tackles everything from gun violence, to police brutality, to racial injustice to the plight of Travon Martin. “And that guy who killed that kid down in Florida standing ground/Is free to beat up on his girlfriend and wave his brand new gun around/ While some kid is dead and buried and laying in the ground/ With a pocket full of skittles” and the even more powerful “And if you say it wasn’t racial/ When they shot him in his tracks/ Well it guess that means that you ain’t black/ It means that you ain’t black/ I mean Barack Obama won/ And you can choose where to eat/ But you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.”
Not all of the songs on the album are somber, and Cooley sings some of his hardest hitting rock songs in years, with Filthy and Fried and Kinky Hypocrite. But even these gems are filled with social and political messages.
The album ends with a beautiful and brave song by Hood that addresses his shock and sadness about the death of Robin Williams. In Baggage, Hood is very upfront about his own daily battle with depression and his heartbreak at the loss of such a wonderful talent because of it.
This album remains true to DBT and its enormous and ever-growing legion of fans. HeAthens, as the most loyal fans call themselves (I’m proud to be among them), are quick to defend this album and its politics. Most of the fans that I’ve spoken to agree with the sentiment of the album and the grave subject matter it faces head on. Most of us understood that these ideals have always been there and is one of the reasons we love them so much. Instead of losing fans, it seems that DBT is expanding its base every day. Even the fans that I spoke to that didn’t necessarily agree with the political direction the band is taking were quick to defend their right as artists and Americans to do so. If only the rest of the country could follow suite. The ability to agree to disagree and accept that people don’t have to have the same views we do to remain good people. That’s a rare thing these days. Let’s hope the message spreads.
Drive-By Truckers remain one of the most talented and relevant bands around. The fact that 20 years later, their music is even harder-hitting and socially just speaks volumes as to who these men are as artists and human beings. If you haven’t bothered to listen, maybe its time to sit down with a cup of coffee (or better yet, a stiff drink. You may need it!) and really, truly listen. Left leaning, right leaning or somewhere in the center, it speaks to us as human beings. That’s a rare and beautiful thing.