Bruce Springsteen has a new album out this year, but he’s never been too far away. In country music, he’s been in the air—Kenny Chesney’s characters are listening to him, Eric Church named a song after him. On the Dirt Drifters’ debut he’s never far from the surface, especially on “Always a Reason”, which starts, “word on the vine is Johnny got a job / three days a week at the auto parts shop,” leading up to a standard E-Street rock move. The punchline they’re getting to is “there’s always a reason to drink around here”, whether it’s in celebration (got a new job) or mourning (woman left you). The song turns out rather noncommittal—in life some days are good, some are bad—even while the bar-band sound coincides nicely with the song’s portrait of a neighborhood bar.
The general slant of this is working-class Americana, not just Springsteen but Tom Petty, Willie and Waylon, Creedence, even Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi, though they might not admit to liking those last two. The feeling that this is your neighborhood bar band gives the music a punch of energy that’s memorable. At the same time, the stories in the music, and the ways they’re told, are less distinct, even generic. They’re sometimes thoughtful enough to get at a real small-town, working-class sense of powerlessness, like on “Name on My Shirt”. But more often their stories are quick and general enough to seem like something off a TV sitcom. Even a song like “Name on My Shirt” will start off seeming specific and get less so, by talking about things like a “true blue-collared man”, as if there is only one such thing. They also tend to cut against and worship stereotypes in equal time, nullifying all statements into blandness.
They have a fondness for aphorisms: “It takes a man to get a man off your mind”; “There ain’t nothing wrong with feeling alright”; “Ain’t nothing good has ever come from married men and motel rooms”. That last line is part of an attempt to put this working-man angst into a film-noir context, with machine guns blazing in dirty motel rooms. It’s a bit of a cartoon, going the tacky route by ending with a toy police siren. “There ain’t nothing wrong with feeling all right” is a response to fears of the apocalypse, an interesting setup if a shallow response to it. Put on your blue dress, baby, let’s go out tonight is their basic reaction to the potential end of the world. The song at least feels like a response to today’s actual headlines (preachers predicting the apocalypse, down to the exact date) rather than familiar boilerplates.
The other headline-news song, “I’ll Shut Up Now”, is more of an editorial-page rant, but with a sense of stream-of-consciousness rambling. It cuts against itself by stating “it’s just another point of view” about its own apparently strongly held opinions. Those are mostly cranky, world-gone-wrong screeds against celebrities, politicians and steroid-taking athletes, with some juvenilia (he needs more women who like to get it on) and one awkward, gimmicky cameo, Willie Nelson singing a bit of “On the Road Again”. Another current-day move that they pull is to end the album with a song that pulls together several standard audience-pandering country moves: praising Jesus, praising the flag, praising family, celebrating small towns, etc. It’s again as generic as can be: “This is my flag / this is my freedom / this is my blood”. He sings, “this is my life / this is what matters”, but across the album we have learned no more about the lives of people than we do from television commercials.
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// Notes from the Road
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