Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Drive-By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark
New West Records; 4.5 Stars

Despite their reputation for being the South’s most lovable drunks on stage, the Drive-By Truckers have always found their home on record. Never has this been more true than on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the Athens five-piece’s latest record. Despite losing the brilliant singer-songwriter Jason Isbell (who quit the group in 2007 following his divorce from wife and DBT bassist Shonna Tucker), the group have finally made their masterpiece.
The Truckers’ songs have always at least had a bit of a playful spirit to them, even when they were singing about Satan and George Wallace and the fiery death of Lynyrd Skynyrd. That spirit is largely missing on the sprawling Brighter; in fact, the songs here that are meant to be playful (Mike Cooley’s “3 Dimes Down” and “Bob,” among several others) have not-so-subtle traces of melancholy. The negative emotional thrust of the record makes it a tough listen, though the group’s focused aim has served only to help them hit their target with more force. In other words, the lack of “fun” on the album doesn’t take away from its merit or the listener’s ability to enjoy it. Consider it a musical No Country For Old Men, from its black and white portraits to the stark twang and dim static of the music.
Though Patterson Hood has always been de facto leader of the three-songwriter band, Brighter is the first of the group’s records that feels like a unit as opposed to the work of three artists. Hood’s “Opening Act,” the album’s centerpiece, is at its most basic a portrait of the beginning of a musician’s life on the road. But when he croaks about “the sun rising over a Technicolor horizon” after having just mentally chalked up a cocaine purchase as a necessary evil, it’s hard to figure out what the narrator’s success has stemmed from. Do the ends justify the means? Hood’s narrator seems to think so, but the dewy lines dripping from John Neff’s pedal steel guitar seem to suggest otherwise. Hood has made compassionate portraiture his stock and trade for years, but never has it been so focused as it is here on tracks like Neil Young stomper “The Righteous Path” or slow-rolling banjo track “Two Daughters and a Wife.”
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark stands in the same dark corner as Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It’s a bleak, lush record that bleeds deep for the people whose stories it tells, whether it’s the soldier haunted by the humanity of his victim in “That Man I Shot” or the tired teenagers who live in Cooley’s “Self-Destructive Zones.” Like Neil Young and Neutral Milk Hotel, the Truckers are telling stories that are at once specific but also universal, stories about the world that we all inhabit every day. Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is not background music. It’s not study music, or music you listen to to have a good time. It’s the kind of music you listen to when you’re trying to make sense of the world around you as all of your lovely wallpaper begins to peel at the edges. As Cooley comments in “Checkout Time in Vegas,” “Sin City still shines brighter than creation’s dark.” Here’s hoping we keep our eyes open for the Technicolor horizon.

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