The arrival of Drive-By Truckers‘ 14th studio album marks a partial break from the band’s role as fiercely direct cultural commentators. Their recent trio of albums—American Band (2016), The Unraveling (2020), and The New OK (2020)—were unflinching engagements with American dysfunction and cruelty.
“All our records are political to some extent, but after making three overtly political records in a row, we wanted to do something much more personal,” Drive-By Truckers co-founder Patterson Hood stated in the press for the band’s latest album, Welcome 2 Club XIII. This new LP takes its title from the Muscle Shoals’ honky-tonk with disco lights, cheap beer, and concrete floors, where Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley got their start in a band called Adam’s House Cat. The personal turn Hood hints at is a look back at the band’s formative years, a mix of reflections on youth tempered by the passage of time and the wounds it inflicts on the notion that it will all make sense one day.
Welcome 2 Club XIII is more introspective and subdued than the previous raw, unfiltered laments and analysis of American culture. Still, their fiery messages emerge from the influences and experiences of their journey. Drive-By Truckers have always kept in tension a variety of styles in their work: The Allman Brothers and the Muscle Shoals sound (Hood’s dad was one of the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section), the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd crossed with the hard-charging, country garage rock sound of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, the post-punk sound and energy of the Replacements and R.E.M., all merged with the kind of Southern Gothic vibe Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner might have created had they been punk rock writers.
Two stellar bookends anchor Welcome 2 Club XIII. “The Driver” and “Wilder Days” exemplify what the Drive-By Truckers do best. “The Driver” opens the album and showcases the band’s talent for compelling storytelling with a keen eye for the grotesque and the thin line separating survival from demise. They do this both lyrically and musically in an intricate interplay where the elements mutually reinforce and propel each other. The song is a sprawling seven-minute saga where the protagonists are the band themselves.
Hood employs the trope of the open road as a means of self-reflection. Inspired by his youthful practice of late-night drives to seek clarity and catharsis, the road also takes on a more literal meaning as the narrative shifts in the latter half of the song to the van trips of early band tours. With a brilliant bit of intertextuality, Hood invokes the music of the Replacements within the piece. The line “Blasting ‘Here Comes a Regular’ on 10” serves as both a road trip soundtrack and a moment of epiphany that sets his future course in the band. The Replacements function here as both musical and songwriting influences and, possibly, as a cautionary tale of the sharp curves and potholes ahead.
The rhythmic propulsion of heavy guitar riffs within the song conjures the experience of gunning the V-8 engine of a muscle car on a warm summer’s night on lonely state highways removed from the din and light pollution of larger urban centers. Mississippi singer-songwriter Schaefer Llana’s background vocals haunt the song and lend to its literate depiction of self-reflection as grappling with the ghosts of our past.
In “Wilder Days”, the road trip—and the reflection it sparks—continues, albeit in a measured, perhaps more cautious manner. Here the song is propelled by the rhythmic repetition of an acoustic guitar. We’ve eased up the pressure on the gas pedal, but the journey continues as guitar and drums dialogue to recreate the hypnotic sound of tires on uneven pavement. The themes invoked are road-weary wisdom where youth and its attendant “…beliefs that life could not sustain” are transfigured into stoic resignation to life’s ambiguity and cruelty.
“I find it best to laugh at the absurdity of life above the ground / There is no comfort in survival/ But it’s still the best option I’ve found,” Hood intones. It’s a gut punch to the quest for grand meaning that settles for a chastened satisfaction in persisting. The song is a powerful narrative of the elusive nature of trying to weave coherence out of our wilder days, beautifully punctuated by country artist Margo Price’s guest backing vocals.
The pieces in between are more or less congruent with the narrative. An exception is Mike Cooley’s “Maria’s Awful Disclosure”, a literate deep dive into the mirror of our national conscience. The song invokes the lurid “fake news” of the 1836 publication of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, an anti-Catholic piece of yellow journalism that stoked American Protestant xenophobia and immigration backlash. Famously invoked in historian Richard Hofstadter’s essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, the track offers a careful reflection on America’s ongoing legacy of Protestant Christian Nationalism. It would make a perfect companion to The Unraveling’s “Grievance Merchants” (also by Cooley) but is a thematic outlier here.
The title song is a rousing roadside bar tune that finds the band reminiscing on their days at Club XIII where they offer the anti-Springsteen lyrical admission that “our glory days did kinda suck”. It is a rollicking, upbeat number steeped in Drive-By Truckers’ roots in R&B, country, and rock with a punk attitude. It’s a fun song and a case study of the band’s infectious energy. It is interesting to consider what difference it would have made had this song opened the album leading into “The Driver”, but sandwiched here in the middle of the album, it is a tonal detour from the other tracks.
The other songs fleshing out Welcome 2 Club XIII hold the balance between retrospection and cautionary tales of a misspent youth. As a specimen of Drive-By Truckers’ performing chops, the album is a rousing endorsement of their ongoing relevance. The band recorded the album over a three-day stretch, with each track laid down live, generally in one or two takes. Co-founders Cooley and Hood, along with keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez, bassist Matt Patton, and drummer Brad Morgan, meld seamlessly as a unit, exuding loose energy that is in no way disciplined. Whatever one might think of the lyrical content, the Drive-By Truckers are a kick-ass band.
As mentioned above, Welcome 2 Club XIII‘s lyrical content is probing and deep. The band mines the rearview mirror reflection on their youth to ponder the road ahead, and it doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. The penultimate track, “Billy Ringo in the Dark”, finds Drive-By Truckers asking, “If I’m going through the motions/and my better days have passed/Should I even stick around/Do I have the wherewithal?” The contents of Welcome 2 Club XIII testify that there are plenty of good miles left in the tank.