Life is always messy on Drive-By Truckers albums, populated by the endless cast of assorted lowlifes and down-and-outs that spring from the minds of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
On English Oceans, the songwriters fill their songs with evocative tales of dying ambitions, interpersonal discord, suffocating shame and in an astute pair of politically edged tunes, turn their sights to the cloying misdirection that dirty tricksters use to pave over all that familiar suffering.
What distinguishes the Truckers’ 12th album from the rest of their excellent recent pack is two-fold: 1) The band came out firing hot, the batch of lean rock songs presented in their visceral, unadorned rawness, and 2) More than ever before, this is a Cooley album, with six of his compositions shaping the overall tone of the record.
Cooley’s “Shit Shots Count” kicks off the album with the sort of sly, weary wisdom of someone who’s long since dropped all idealism: “Friday night rich is all you’re ever gonna be until the fight in you on Monday’s gone.” Go to work and have your weekends and forget about measuring your life in terms of pride or shame, advises Cooley, adopting a resigned barfly honesty: “Don’t act so surprised, and try not to look so lost.”
That’s the world of English Oceans, Cooley’s temperament direct and powerful.
After recording The Big To-Do and its follow-up, Go-Go Boots (the band’s first albums for ATO), over a long stretch in 2009, the band retooled, adding bassist Matt Patton and moving new-ish keyboardist Jay Gonzalez more to guitar. The Truckers rested and wrote and then punched out all of English Oceans in 13 days.
Cooley’s “Primer Coat” is mid-tempo melancholy, a song about survival, about struggling through incomplete lives. “A girl as plain as a primer coat leaves nothing misunderstood,” sings Cooley, a detached observation that frames the song just right.
Hood’s “Pauline Hawkins” follows, based on The Free, by novelist (and songwriter) Willy Vlautin. Hood takes the story of a wounded veteran and nurse brought together by fate and examines the weight of dependency from both sides, the verses crashing together in a natural conflict: “It’s always too soon / to be called for comfort / to belong to someone / inside a locked room” from one perspective, “You’re just a vacation / a one night way-station / to keep me awake / until I’m ready to sleep” from the other.
The album’s middle stretch is given over to the political realm, portraits of scandal-ridden warriors out to reshape the world to their own selfish purposes. Cooley’s “Made Up English Oceans” draws its inspiration from Lee Atwater, the Reagan operative whose work was characterized, by his own admission, for its “naked cruelty.” Cooley, singing from the Atwater perspective, describes how to sway and influence the young, Southern men so crucial to the Republican strategy: “Once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow.”
Hood’s “The Part of Him” finds a Nixonian politician, “indifferent to honesty,” doing what comes naturally: “He was an absolute piece of shit to tell the truth, but he never told the truth to me.” And in the theatrics that stand in for leadership, there’s always someone else ready and waiting to play the same part.
The same balance and seamlessness between songwriters that characterizes the entire album shows most vividly on “Til He’s Dead or Rises,” with Cooley taking lead vocals on Hood’s lyrics, a first for the Truckers after nearly 20 years of playing.
If the Truckers hit their peak on the back-to-back Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day more than a decade ago, the band hasn’t strayed but a few paces from that summit since. And after former Trucker Jason Isbell’s career-best Southeastern last year, the prolific and consistent Hood and Cooley seem reinvigorated.
English Oceans closes on a poignant and emotional note, with “Grand Canyon,” written for the band’s close friend, longtime tourmate and Athens, Ga. mainstay Craig Lieske. An elegy in the classic sense, “Grand Canyon” touches on God and fate and the vast, wondrous and mysterious beauty of this Earth, this life.
“If the recently departed make the sunsets / to say farewell to the ones they leave behind / There were technicolor hues to see our sadness through / as the sun over Athens said goodbye,” sings Hood on the breathtaking, nearly eight-minute goodbye.
Dedicated to Lieske, English Oceans is a triumph for the Drive-By Truckers, one that capitalizes on Hood and Cooley’s strengths as songwriters and also gives them something to sing for that means more than all those colorful characters put together.