“Feb. 14”, the lead-off track on Drive-By Truckers’ sixth studio album, A Blessing and a Curse, is unlike any other song in the band’s catalog. It says what it wants to say early on — despite broken bottles on the floor and time not necessarily healing all wounds like the sages say it should, the narrator nonetheless begs “be my valentine” — and spends the rest of its running time reinforcing the sentiment. There’s no vivid scene being set, no extensive sequence of verses detailing characters and environments and Southern lore. It’s a simple rock song, pounded out in fist-tight quarter notes with a certain determined sobriety.
“Be my vallllennntiiiiine,” lead Trucker Patterson Hood sings, his voice haggard and sincere, squeezing every last drop out of his three thrifty words as if the sought-after answer required nothing but stamina. In this moment of economy and nearly meaningless persistence, Hood recalls the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg and his infamous two-decade-old “I’m so unsatisfied” howl. Like Westerberg, Hood’s three and a half minutes are all about leaving unquestionable impressions. He gets the job done.
If the Truckers succeed on this kind of visceral level, as they have made a habit of doing for a few albums now, they do so through gritted teeth. It’s a product of compromise: “Feb. 14”, and the entirety of A Blessing and a Curse, is an attempt to reconcile what was hoped to be with what is — in other words, preconceptions taken for granted are blighted by reality. This time around, there’s a concerted effort to get the heart of the matter with efficiency and clarity: unlike longwinded previous albums The Dirty South and the two-disc Southern Rock Opera, A Blessing and a Curse clocks in at a remarkably clean 45 minutes. For the Truckers (fueled, as always, by the three guitars and three pens of Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell), it’s an abnormally concise record that also happens to be their least sloppy.
Furthermore, A Blessing and a Curse continues to distance itself from the Truckers’ “Lynyrd Skynyrd with a higher IQ” roots, drawing from both the aforementioned Replacements (“Wednesday”, with its to-the-hilt rhythm section, mines a more Pleased to Meet Me vibe) and the Rolling Stones for its rock ‘n’ roll sound. For the most polished record of their career, the Truckers couldn’t have picked more raggedy role models. “Aftermath USA”, for example, is characterized by dueling guitars that drunkenly nip at each other’s throats, one occasionally giving slack and sliding out of key. It’s a combination of the Glimmer Twins’ booze riffs and the bedhead disorientation of the ‘Mats, delivered with its clutter in check. Hood’s narrative of a confusing morning after (“there was cigarettes in the ashtrays and they weren’t your menthol lights”) soon bloats into the confrontation of a decimated reality; the “smell of musk and deception” begets financial ruin, decadence, and infidelity. Struck by betrayal, Hood’s narrator resolves to “break even soon” — funny, since you’d think he’d want to get even. But this disillusionment is bigger than the reason-for-revenge scenario that serves as its metaphor — as big, perhaps, as the country to which its title alludes. It requires a solution, one that may not even exist, to balance out the good with the bad. Then again, the narrator’s got crystal meth in the bathtub and blood in the sink, so maybe he just doesn’t know any better.
Cooley’s fantastic “Gravity’s Gone” is more Sticky Fingers-era slouch, a perfect mix of acoustic guitar strums with sharp-toothed electrics. Cooley, too, is writing from a perspective of a long-held perception (“I’ll meet you at the bottom if there really is one / They always told me when you hit it you’ll know it”) that, due to certain life experiences, needs retooling (“I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floatin'”). Hood’s delayed response in the penultimate title track’s cyclonic minor chords: “When it all comes down there’ll be nothin’ left to catch you but ground.” One man’s odyssey is another man’s reality.
Isbell’s two forceful contributions, the Blue Öyster Cult-esque “Easy on Yourself” and “Daylight”, are the album’s slickest; his mastery of the ambiguously universal power anthem delivers songs that could have been huge hits in the ’80s mainstream or ’90s underground. The Truckers are focused here, more than they ever have been on record in the past — that doesn’t mean they’re not still prone to jam overkill (the six-minute “Goodbye” seems to betray the album’s unspoken rule of less-is-more) or thematic bludgeoning. “I was 27 when I figured out that blowin’ my brains out wasn’t the answer / So I decided that maybe I should find a way to make this world work out for me,” Hood narrates on “World of Hurt”, which is a redundant way of saying what his band has said for 40 minutes prior. But then, the album’s runtime, like life, is short. Best to leave an unquestionable impression.