It’s been a little over three years since the previous Drive-By Truckers album, American Band, was released. That was just over a month before Donald Trump was elected President. So The Unraveling is the band’s first chance to address the state of affairs since that seismic event. It’s an interesting position to be in, as singer/songwriter/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have always had empathy for poor, rural Americans. But the band, particularly Hood (as well as former member Jason Isbell), have also been outspoken about their liberal points of view, which puts them at odds with many of the characters they’ve written songs about.
The Unraveling is the band’s shortest album, featuring a mere nine songs and clocking in at just over 42 minutes long. That’s not a bad thing, though. It turns out that applying the band’s empathetic (yet sardonic) songwriting to current events makes for a dramatic, sometimes depressing album. Any longer and the album might have become a chore to listen to.
As it is, the record doesn’t hit you with the heavy stuff right away. The quiet opener “Rosemary With a Bible and a Gun” lives in familiar Truckers territory. It’s a song about a struggling woman that opens with only Hood’s voice and Jay Gonzalez’s piano. Eventually, spare guitar, simple kick and snare drum hits, and fiddle join in, but it never loses its soft and contemplative tone. It’s also the first time Hood has used the word “sirens” since 2001’s seminal Southern Rock Opera. But maybe this is only notable to me because I love that he pronounces it “sireens”.
The second and third tracks are the album’s bright rockers. Hood’s “Armageddon’s Back in Town” sounds like at least a semi-autobiographical account of having to deal with problems while out on the road. It opens with a breakdown outside of Cincinnati, and it gets to its mission statement quickly, “There’s something to be said for hangin’ in there.” A catchy guitar riff and a repeated single note piano part serve as the hook while Hood’s chorus, such as it is, features a strong melody but very few repeated lyrics. The song also features a false ending, which is followed by a minute of the full band rocking out, including some of the most dynamic drum fills ever laid down by Brad Morgan in the band’s long career.
Cooley makes his first of only two songwriting appearances here with “Slow Ride Argument”, which rides a driving beat and a strong guitar lead into an extended, complicated chorus that features prominent vocals from Hood. It’s unusual to hear both of the band’s singers together on one track these days. Hood has occasionally done harmonies for the Truckers’ departed members, but Cooley generally writes songs for solo vocals. It’s an outlier and a nice changeup to the band’s usual way of working.
Once The Unraveling hits the fourth song, “Thoughts and Prayers”, though, the album dives headlong into the nightmares of the United States in 2020. The song itself is a positive-sounding, easygoing country shuffle with jangling acoustic guitars and some subtle pedal steel and piano. But the lyrics are about school shootings and the politicians who offer nothing but thoughts and prayers in response. After the harrowing opening of the song describing the immediate aftermath of a shooting, Hood spends the back half of the song speculating about what will happen when “Generation Lockdown” comes of age. “They’ll throw the bums all out / Drain the swamp for real” and “Stick it up your ass / With your useless thoughts and prayers.”
“Babies in Cages” covers similar topical territory, albeit in a darker, slightly bluesy rock song. Gonzalez uses an organ here, while Matt Patton uses an unusually fat tone on his bass. That the bass guitar is noticeable at all is an indication of how sparingly the guitars are used in the song, playing lots of solo leads but hardly anything in the way of chords or riffs. It’s a song that sounds defeated, Hood admitting that the damage is already done while being incredibly sad about it.
Cooley’s other song is “Grievance Merchants”, a seething mid-tempo rocker about privileged young white men and what they feel they’re entitled to. But Cooley’s real target is the enablers who make money off of those people’s anger. “The demonizing of the troubled minded / With all the usual suspects on the scene / Merchants selling young men reclamation / Merchants selling old men back their dreams.” This is an interestingly constructed song. There’s a bunch of verses and no real chorus, but it builds to a searing refrain, repeated twice at the climax of the song: “Man, thoughts and prayers keep coming / As they wallow in their helplessness alone!” “Grievance Merchants” is a powerful song made more so because Cooley often writes at a bit of a remove. But here he lets his anger build with the song, leading to one of his most passionate vocal deliveries.
The other three songs on The Unraveling each have their qualities worth mentioning. The closer, “Awaiting Resurrection”, is one of those occasional Hood songs that drags on past the eight-minute mark. Drive-By Truckers are very accomplished at a lot of things, but extended jams aren’t one of them, and this follows in that tradition of not-so-great songs. “Heroin Again”, about an old friend who gets himself hooked again after kicking the habit, may count as the most upbeat track on the album’s back half. It’s still a big downer topically, but its more personal perspective is at least a step away from the direct social commentary.
Then there’s “21st Century”, which, for my money, is the most disheartening song on an already emotionally heavy album. Hood laments the state of, well, all of America, essentially. He incisively shines the light on everyday things. “All-American but Chinese-made / Folks working hard, for shrinking pay / 21st century USA.” The song itself gently rolls along, but mostly the band stays low-key and out of the way to let Hood give his State of the Union address. “If Amazon can deliver salvation / I’ll order it from my phone.” The last verse starts with, “Look at your children, and you hope and pray / They can conjure up a better day,” which seems like an appropriate closing statement. So much for improving life for yourself, everybody, hopefully, your kids will have better ideas.
The Unraveling is another in a never-ending line of quality releases from Drive-By Truckers, but it’s not a lot of fun. As much they have always gotten into the nitty-gritty of life on the fringes of America, they’ve also celebrated the power of friendship, family, and rock music. While there’s rock music here, there’s not a lot of celebration. Maybe the political situation will have changed by the next time the band hits the studio, and Hood and Cooley will be in a more positive state of mind.