Certainly the rumors of Drive-By Truckers’ demise following the supposedly amicable departure of Jason Isbell have been greatly exaggerated. While Isbell released a fine solo debut that spawned one of 2007’s standout singles, the remaining Truckers (dual frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, bassist Shonna Tucker, multi-instrumentalist and founding member John Neff, and the legendary Spooner Oldham, a frequent collaborator with the band) gave a superlative backing performance on Bettye LaVette’s The Scene of the Crime and launched the wildly successful the Dirt Underneath tour where the band honed and pared down the material that would ultimately form their new record. That album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, puts to rest any lingering doubts about creative conflict within the band.
Indeed, Brighter stands as the Truckers’ most cohesive work. Cooley and Hood still remain individually distinctive singer-songwriters (as does Tucker, contributing her own material for the first time), but they sound more like a fully formed band here than on any of their previous outings. The Truckers are most frequently classified as a Southern rock act, but the songs on Brighter showcase the breadth of the band’s influences. From the Neil Young & Crazy Horse rock of “3 Dimes Down” to the subtle R&B groove on “Daddy Needs a Drink” and the vintage country of “Lisa’s Birthday,” the band plays fast and loose with genre convention, which only strengthens the case that they’re possibly the best current American rock band.
What has been a bit problematic for them, then, is the ambition of their songwriting and an occasional tendency to sound as if they’re writing for a select audience. At their best, the Truckers are able to take exacting details from modern life in the working-class South and use those details to craft songs that hit upon something archetypal. Hood’s “Sink Hole” and Cooley’s “When the Pin Hits the Shell,” both from 2003’s Decoration Day, for instance, are rooted in a unique vernacular but aren’t limited by it because the songs aim for and ultimately achieve greater thematic purpose. It’s the details that make the songs “Southern,” but it’s the scope of the writing that makes the songs great.
The band’s last album, 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse, was a peak for the Truckers because nearly every song found the songwriters using their keen eyes for detail as a means to an end rather than as an end unto itself. On Brighter, however, the band occasionally returns to the territory of 2004’s The Dirty South, in which the explicit purpose of the songs is to mythologize life in the South. Cooley’s “You and Your Crystal Meth,” for instance, is a didactic anti-drug screed, especially in comparison to “Aftermath, USA” from Blessing and a Curse, which used a single reference to a bathtub full of rural America’s drug-of-choice to tell a far more compelling tale of destruction. The worst offender, though, is Cooley’s “Bob,” a character sketch that has drawn some criticism for its possible homophobia (Cooley assures that Bob “ain’t light in the loafers/He might kneel/But he never bends over”) and is without question the flat-out dumbest song the band has ever committed to record.
At a full 19 songs, Brighter shows an overall lack of internal editing. As is the case with all of the band’s albums, death hangs heavy on the proceedings here, most notably on Hood’s two standout contributions, opener “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” which is written from the perspective of a man who has just died, and “The Man I Shot,” a harrowing narrative about a returning Iraq War veteran who can’t shake the image of the enemy soldier he killed. In comparison, a track like “Bob” comes across as pure filler, while significantly better-written cuts like the life-on-the-road trope of “The Opening Act” or Tucker’s melancholy “Home Field Advantage” fail to add much thematic coherence to the record. With a handful of selective cuts, Brighter could stand as a powerful album that explores the flaws in constructs of finality and closure, and it could’ve been the Truckers’ second straight career-best record. As is, it’s a sporadically brilliant effort by an exceptional band whose reach still sometimes exceeds their grasp.