When you’ve got three exceptional singer-songwriters in the same band, one of whom is a great deal younger than the other two and has only recently come into his own, you know that he’s going to eventually split to head out on his own. In the case of Jason Isbell, it was only a matter of time. Since joining the Drive-By Truckers in 2001, he’d quickly become an integral part of the band, contributing such key songs as “Outfit”, “Decoration Day”, and “Danko/Manuel”, and you just knew that the young fella had more music in him than just three songs per album. So it was no surprise when Isbell amicably left the band a year ago, nor was it a huge shock that his long-delayed solo debut Sirens of the Ditch turned out to be every bit as good as expected. What was surprising, however, was just how many people, primarily those who had become fans of the band from Decoration Day onward, thought Isbell’s departure would leave an irreparable hole in the Truckers’ armor.
As key a member as Isbell was, the band remains the baby of guitarists/singers/partners in crime Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and they’ve since gone on to do just fine without him, first on last year’s well-received “The Dirt Underneath” tour (which featured the band’s two new aces in the hole, multi-instrumentalist John Neff and veteran keyboardist Spooner Oldham), and now on the Drive-By Truckers’ seventh studio album. That said, while Brighter Than Creation’s Dark contains some of the band’s best work to date, it feels like Hood and Cooley are still preoccupied with filling the void that Isbell left, because they’ve left us with an often enjoyable yet haphazardly sequenced, 19 track album that drags on and on for 75 minutes, when 50 minutes would have sufficed.
While it takes some time to sort the wheat from the chaff, the good stuff that’s left is great. Just as he did on 2006’s underrated gem A Blessing and a Curse, Hood continues to contribute the bulk of the standout material on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. On the surface, “The Righteous Path” is quintessential Drive-By Truckers, the ragged riffs by Cooley and Hood anchored by the understated rhythm section of bassist Shonna Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan, but this time around, Neff’s echoing pedal steel adds a forlorn touch, accentuating Hood’s own aching and impassioned workingman’s blues. Oldham’s gorgeously subtle piano fills and Tucker’s tender backing vocals make “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” all the more touching, while Hood’s storytelling prowess, always his strength, takes over on the wry, sad “The Opening Act”.
Hood touches on the war in Iraq on two songs, from two different perspectives, and both tracks will go down as two of the finest pieces the band has ever recorded. With both Neff and Oldham continuing to add great richness to the Truckers’ sound, the heartbreaking “The Home Front” centers on a soldier’s young wife and child, as Hood, in his best vocal performance on the record, views the futility of the entire operation through the eyes of a soldier’s lonely family at home. Destined to become a live favorite, “That Man I Shot”, heads into much darker territory, Hood’s soldier protagonist trying to rationalize the murder of an Iraqi, the song morbidly drenched in sludgy riffs straight out of Crazy Horse, Cooley letting loose searing lead fills and Morgan mercilessly propelling the song with repeated hammers on the ride cymbal.
As for Cooley, it’s steady as she goes, his best material serving as a gritty, humorously direct counterpoint to Hood’s more outwardly poetic efforts. Always at his best when he plugs in, Cooley is the most uproarious he’s been in years on the raucous Exile on Main Street homage “3 Dimes Down”, spewing lines that would make Charles Bukowski proud (“Gonna get totally screwed while chicken wing puke eats the candy-apple red off his Corvette”). Cooley delivers his trademark one-liners on the philosophical “A Ghost to Most” (“I guess I’ll never grow sideburns / It’s a shame with all I’ve got to go between”) and “Self-Destructive Zones” (“It’s easier to let it all die a fairytale than admit that something bigger’s passing through”), while the acoustic shuffle of “Perfect Timing” has him at his most openly self-effacing.
The album’s biggest revelation, though, just might be the emergence of Tucker as a lead singer. First capturing the attention of fans a couple years ago when she handled a verse of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, Tucker’s thick Alabama drawl and unpretentious yet charismatic delivery is immensely appealing, and she finally steps up with three contributions of her own. While “Home Field Advantage” plays the sports metaphor card too awkwardly and “I’m Sorry Houston” feels rather tentative, Tucker’s third try is a knockout. Underscored by hushed drones, minimal electric piano, and gently chiming pedal steel, “The Purgatory Line” is led entirely by Tucker’s beautiful, understated vocals, the song drenched in the same kind of old-fashioned reverb that Neko Case has perfected over the last eight years.
Despite such strong material, it’s a shame it has to be bogged down by a good six or seven tracks of filler. Along with “Home Field Advantage” and the somnambulistic “Daddy Needs a Drink”, the old-timey country of “Bob” and “Lisa’s Birthday” clashes with the rest of the album, while the lurching blooze of “Goode’s Field Road”, the B-level Cooley effort “Checkout Time in Vegas”, and especially the over-the-top melodrama of Hood’s “You and Your Crystal Meth”, bring the momentum of the album’s second half to a screeching halt. Not since “The President’s Penis is Missing” sidetracked Pizza Deliverance eight years ago has a Drive-By Truckers album suffered from such sloppy editing. But still, the many highlights of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark make it well worth wading through the dreck to get to. The only hassle is that we’re the ones who have to sort the whole mess out, when transferring the album’s dozen keepers on to our iPods.
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