Music

Drive-By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation's Dark

Although they haven't lost a step since Jason Isbell left, the Drive-By Truckers' seventh album doesn't know when to say when.


Drive-By Truckers

Brighter Than Creation's Dark

Label: New West
US Release Date: 2008-01-22
UK Release Date: 2008-01-21
Amazon
iTunes

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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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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