Solo albums can reveal a lot about the band to which the artist belongs, especially one like the Drive-By Truckers, where the braiding of different voices melds into a fundamentally unified sound. When one of these voices breaks off on its own, that sound tends to unspool. Like most of Lennon and McCartney’s solo work, something is noticeably missing from Patterson Hood’s Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), namely the contentious balance between two dueling creative drives, a tension which provides a much needed sense of opposition and variety. For the Beatles, this balance grew out of the contrast between Lennon’s avant-garde inclinations and McCartney’s poppy geniality; for the Truckers, it’s two sides of the Southern Man persona, personified by primary songwriters Mike Cooley and Hood. Delving into character studies and murder narratives that flow seamlessly from one to another, the Truckers create a tangled balance between the ghastly and the everyday. Cooley and Hood explore the same gritty revenge dramas and bittersweet nostalgic reminisces, but their approach is different: Hood’s voice possesses a bittersweet sentiment; Cooley’s is harsh and more tinged with anger.
So like a lot of combinations, taking apart the individual pieces is not a simple case of division. With no Cooley here to act as a foil, and the meaty heft of the backing band noticeably absent, Hood falters, resulting in an uninterrupted stream of watery drivel that drifts by much too slowly. There’s little variation and even less bite. This lack of range also serves to further highlight faults that ordinarily might go unnoticed. The scruffily amoral tone of the title track plies a sense of remorseless pride with the refrain, “I killed Oscar and I forgave me,” as if this kind of callousness were shocking. It’s tiresome, even more so because it lapses into the mealy tranquility of “Pollyanna.”
While this material might be forgivable in the context of a Truckers album, picked up by a guitar solo or a lyrical change of pace, Murdering Oscar possesses no such devices to save it from itself. And for a record with guest appearances by David Hood, the singer’s father and a member of the famed Muscle Shoals session band, it’s surprisingly short on muscle. That means a lot of mush like “Pride of the Yankees,” a twinkly, swirling drag that dotes on its own sense of defeated wistfulness. Devoid of the brawn that makes the Truckers so powerful and without a complementary voice off which to bounce, Hood’s songs fall into a folksy rut.