Friday, January 25, 2008

Brighter Than Creation's Dark

Last Tuesday, Drive-By Truckers released their 7th studio album of the past decade, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, a sprawling, ambitious album that clocks in at 75 minutes over 19 tracks. The following is our attempt to make sense of it all.

Steven: One of the reasons why I enjoy Drive-By Truckers so much is that they're bold and talented enough to look into the minds of people who aren't like them, and somehow wring from that an impressive verisimilitude. That’s a talent that shines through most clearly on "The Righteous Path", which is without question my favorite track of this album, because it so perfectly captures the fear and uncertainty of the American middle class, both in economic and spiritual terms.

But really, the whole thing is peppered with the points-of-view of so many different people -- a soldier in Iraq; the ex-best-friend of a meth addict -- that, at the end, you're left with more a mosaic of contemporary Americana than a simple rock album. In that respect, there’s not much different, ideologically, about the songs on this album than any of the Patterson Hood/Mike Cooley offerings on The Dirty South or Decoration Day. That’s certainly not a bad thing, mind you. Call me classist or priggish or whatever, but I think the experience of listening to a kaleidoscopic album that tries to convey the American experience (whatever that is), or hell, any experience in an immediate way, is ultimately more rewarding than the mostly-meaningless lyrics of, say, The National (and I say that as a big National fan).

Still, it’s not all business-as-usual here. The sound of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is defined by the absence of Jason Isbell (who, alongside Hood and Cooley, shared singer-songwriter-guitarist duties on the band’s previous efforts until he left to pursue a solo career). Isbell was always the most pop-friendly of the three, as his songs were the most likely to venture out of the southern-rock/alt-country niche that the band had consigned themselves to since they released Southern Rock Opera in 2001. But Isbell’s replacement, John Neff, primarily plays the pedal steel, obviously not an instrument you freely associate with the Billboard charts.

What we’re left with, then, is Drive-By Truckers totally embracing a new ethos, not quite alt-country but not quite southern-rock, which is uniquely and distinctively theirs. No one will ever confuse the brilliant opener “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” as anything other than a DBT track, even if the majority of alt-country/southern-rock acts are interchangeable.

Drive-By Truckers have long ago transcended the notion that they were little more than an empathetic Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Brighter Than Creation’s Dark propels them higher still, as one of the best bands working in America right now.

Brendan: One of the enduring criticisms of alt-country (and its indie-blues, folk, and southern rock variants) is the genre’s fetish for the stories of poorest of the poor during the Dust Bowl. And while I wouldn't exactly imagine Jay Farrar jerking off to The Grapes of Wrath, the vicarious experiences sought and documented by so many of the form's practitioners never did really lend their music the credibility that permeates those Folkways anthologies that inspired them. And, perhaps its greatest crime of all, alt-country never really added anything but superlatives to the legacy of Dylan, Cash, Young, Cooder, Parsons, and the five-headed genius from Big Pink. No matter their approximation of long-forgotten traditional American musicians' work, alt-country’s practitioners never sounded anything better than an impression of their impressions- sort of like how nobody remembers how George H.W. Bush actually talked so much as they remember Dana Carvey's version on SNL.

This is where the most glaring exception to my argued rule should be recognized: Drive-By Truckers make a more convincing case for redefining the terms of alt-country than I could refute. DBT are a band that remembers and respects the self-reflexivity of traditional American music. The original line of our black-originated music splits into millions of tributaries and flows again into itself, becoming blues, jazz, folk and rock in the same initial chronology while splitting and combining again across thousands of miles to flood our land with an extraordinarily rich and deep musical tradition.

Today we're simply too far downstream to really remember where the river began, so Drive-By Truckers look for points of reference closer to the currents that carry them right now, namely the "classic" and country-influenced rock of 70s and 80s AOR programming popular in their native Alabama. Brighter Than Creation's Dark is a work that clearly accepts the horrible truth that Ronnie Van Zandt and Marshall Tucker were, for better or worse, our rightful heirs to Muddy Waters and Lead Belly. With this accepted and unapologized for, Hood, Cooley and Tucker's dispatches from a thoroughly depressed (and depressing) modern South- rife as they are with drugs, poverty and everyday struggles to find the promised beauty of an uniquely American locale- ring with greater historical resonance than their contemporaries' ever could.

Darryl: My first discussions of this album with Brendan were overwhelmed by ambivalence. I’d had a chance to hear the album, and fell into agreement with the same take of the album that I had heard from most corners. That is to say, an impressive work that, while much too long, hits notable highs that excuse the lows. “You and Your Crystal Meth” is in this sense a defining conversation point for the album. The character is drawn vividly, though in lyrics that fall flat compared to the rest of the album, but most notable is the abysmal production that seems to condemn the entire concept of audio engineering and vocal effects processing in particular. But to cast aside the record for this misstep, or “Bob,” the Middle American version of the Geto Boys’ “Damn it Feels Good to Be a Gangsta,” seems both callous and premature. Yes, the album clocks in at 75 minutes, and it isn’t flawless. But there are things I’d change about London Calling too.

I think the characters drawn in Brighter than Creation’s Dark are compelling because I’m never left feeling that the only character drawn to the nuance of humanity is the singer-as-narrator. Not knowing as much about this band as either of you, I don’t know if the songwriters lived these experiences, and I don’t know if the disconnect I feel in some lyrics is due to my distance from the experience or theirs, but it seems much more to be the former if only because I believe them. The care (and I’m keeping this word) that seems taken in choosing the words, and with the arrangements that accompany them, makes the experience all the more engrossing.

Of all the songs to kick in as I write this paragraph, “Self-Destructive Zones” just started. I said that I was ambivalent to this record on first listen, but the second time around changed my mind. I sat down to read, cued up the record, and decided to scrap the book. I spent the rest of the evening lying in bed, listening to this record from start to finish. The record, from start (as has been pointed out by Brendan, the opening track is brilliant, no doubt) to finish (I’m not sure whether “Monument Valley” should come after “A Ghost to Most,” but it still works out great to finish it off) is well-paced and filled with good material, but what made me fall for the record was “Self Destructive Zones.” Perhaps it’s the unrepentant pop melody, or the characters and the locations painted in the particular universal that make the best pop song stories. Or maybe it’s just the closest to a certain ineffable quality about Lucero that I’m not sure I’ll ever get over.

Whatever it is, it comes between the country drinking ballad “Daddy Needs A Drink,” the aforementioned “Bob,” and one of the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Neko female fronted tracks by way of “Home Field Advantage.” In this one album, perhaps this one stretch, I think DBT has succeeded in capturing so many of the varied streams of the contemporary alt-country/southern rock/etc. I think that this fact alone justifies the length of the album; it can be so broad but still so cohesive only because it has 19 songs over which to work. Of course, there are elements unrepresented, but as “Home Field Advantage” breaks down into the territory of Wilco’s “I am trying to break your heart,” I think they really have got this shit down.

Are they the best band in America? A topic for later. Is the pedal steel awesome? No doubt.


Brendan K. said...

"...there are things I’d change about London Calling too."

The opinions expressed by Darryl do not represent those of Neon Hustle, its contributors or especially Brendan himself, who thinks D is plain fucking crazy.

Steven Simunic said...

He's right in one respect though: "Bob" sucks.

Darryl said...

I appreciate the backup, steve.

Looking back at my post, I'll stand by my London Calling comment. Is it one of the best albums ever? Without a doubt. But flawless? That's a threshold that I don't think anything should be expected to meet, especially a punk record made brilliant by the chances it takes. As opposed to Sandinista, where the gamble was arguably lost, London Calling works from start to finish. I'm just saying I wouldn't mind re-recording the hi-hats on "Lost in the Supermarket." But sitting here listening to it, I'm probably inclined to agree: it's pretty much perfect.

For the record: my restraint in avoiding the use of "apotheosis" has yet to be remarked upon. you're all welcome :)

Steven Simunic said...

Sorry for being glib. How's a more constructive comment, then, on the line of:

London Calling isn't perfect, if only because it has "Train in Vain" on it, which really belongs on Combat Rock.

Darryl said...

I've been relistening "London Calling," and remembering exactly why it's my favorite album of all time. I think I may need to flip-flop.

Danielle said...

BraVO, Steven! I hope I enjoy the new album as much as I enjoyed your review! :-) Thanks to poor paycheck budgeting I'm being forced to wait until next Wednesday to purchase it. This will give me just enough time to cram a few tracks into my head before the show... which I'm still not positive I'll be able to attend. (oh, the cruel suspense of it all!) Have I thanked you again lately for introducing me to this band? You CERTAINLY opened the floodgates with that one. Thanks.
Peace out.