PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Drive-By Truckers Are Sadder and Angrier on 'The Unraveling'

Photo: Andy Tenille / Courtesy of Big Hassle Media

Once Drive-By Truckers' The Unraveling hits the fourth song, "Thoughts and Prayers", the album dives headlong into the nightmares of the United States in 2020.

The Unraveling
Drive-By Truckers


31 January 2020

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.