Music Reviews
The Unraveling

Drive-By Truckers The Unraveling

(ATO Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Timing’s a bitch. Drive-By Trucker’s last album, American Band, came out without any knowledge of the 2016 election results. Its' follow-up, The Unraveling, was recorded and in the can before renewed flare-ups in the Middle East and the 45th president’s impeachment trial. For a band that wears its message on its sleeve, those were rich moments to miss. But honestly, it’s of little matter. There is always plenty of grist for the mill and the issues that the country was mired in at the time of American Band’s release have had little to remedy them.

The Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley-led band don’t need to look far to find society’s frayed ends on their twelfth studio album. Decidedly more political their last two times out, here the band tackles mass shootings, white nationalism, rampant addiction, and disgraces at the border. If that doesn’t sound like the trappings for a fun Saturday night of listening, it ain’t, but everything is marinated in an irresistible, “wah-wah” flavored stew courtesy of Sam Phillips Recording Service. The echoes of the legendary Memphis studio waft through every moment of The Unraveling’s “watching greatness fade”— and the band rolls with it.

If the song title Babies In Cages sounds a bit on the nose, the lyrics (“Children changing each others diapers in a pen”) bear that out: What would seem like a cringe-worthy moment ends up becoming the sonic centerpiece of the album. The slap-back rhythms and echoed howls create a sinister edge worthy of the song’s topic, and the extended instrumental passages show the group not wanting to let the moment go. They later fully allow themselves time to simmer on the eight-minute closer, Awaiting Resurrection, giving way to an exhalation that’s either America’s dying breath or Hood’s moment of resolve to steel himself against what comes next.  

For a band renowned for passages of writer’s block, Hood carries most of the water here and Cooley’s lyrical contribution is limited to two songs. Neither are his greatest, but  Grievance Merchants is a sly one (which sounds like a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad filtered through Orville Peck’s modern sensibilities). The “conspiracy to water down his blood” fuels the frustration of the central character who's “being white alone don’t make the ladies swoon”. And the band just flat out rocks on the hard-charging Heroin Again and the Springsteen-inspired epic build of Armageddon’s Back In Town.  

Never ones for subtlety, The Unraveling finds Hood and Cooley as fiery as they’ve ever been. If American Band proved that the Drive-By Truckers still had plenty left to say, The Unraveling shows that they can allow themselves a bit of fun in the studio while getting their message across. Even the loosest-sounding moments here, like the jangly Thoughts and Prayers, can’t hide the scars of the American landscape that inspired them. Singing along to a song where the central image is of cell phones left with no one to answer them may not feel right, but somehow they make it so.