A major disappointment that follows a minor disappointment by less than a year, Drive-By Truckers’s Go-Go Boots suggests that one of America’s finest rock bands is in a full-on slump. Ultimately, the Truckers’s decision to divide their last two albums into the harder rocking The Big To-Do and the mid-tempo Go-Go Boots plays against them, leaving both albums unbalanced and in desperate need of selective editing. Cut the filler from The Big To-Do and replace it with the couple of strong, trademark DBT ballads from Go-Go Boots and there could be a solid record between the two. As is, Go-Go Boots aims for a soulful, introspective vibe, but it ends up as the dullest album in the Truckers’s catalogue.
At their best, the Drive-By Truckers demonstrates keen observational eyes that take minute details of life in the contemporary, rural South and use them to create sharply drawn, rich narratives of real complexity and depth. But the songs on Go-Go Boots are far from the Truckers’s best work. Mike Cooley has been relegated to writing just three of the album’s 14 tracks. His plainspoken songwriting usually works well with the band’s rugged approach, but here only the traditional country ballad “The Weakest Man” really connects. Bassist Shonna Tucker fares less well, with “Dancin’ Ricky” playing out as a bald-faced Lucinda Williams knockoff with ridiculous lines like “Don’t let your diabetes get you” undercutting its character sketch, and her thin-voiced performance on a cover of Eddie Hinton’s “Where’s Eddie” recalls Lee Ann Womack at her most anemic.
The majority of the album, however, is Patterson Hood’s show, and his observations have rarely been so literal and tin-eared. The title track takes entirely too long to play out its story of infidelity and murder, and, even then, its thematic angle of how such tales transpire in small towns is something that Hood has covered repeatedly and with far greater skill. “I Used to Be a Cop” is similarly longwinded and all too familiar, and “The Fireplace Poker” is even more of a chore, clocking in at well over eight minutes. At worst, Hood’s songs sound more like transcripts off some rural police scanner than like his simple, everyman’s poetry.
When Hood’s songs have a greater scope and have been more selectively edited, Go-Go Boots does offer reminders of Drive-By Truckers’s superior craft. Opener “I Do Believe,” which is perhaps the poppiest, most accessible song in the band’s catalogue, offers a compelling, thoughtful reminiscence on the narrator’s childhood, while “The Thanksgiving Filter” speaks to the importance of rituals and rites of passage. But those songs are the exceptions on Go-Go Boots. Even when slowing down the tempo, Drive-By Truckers has proven that they can remain a captivating rock band, but they simply haven’t done that here, and it makes Go-Go Boots by far their least satisfying record to date.