Art doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes it hovers above you, resting in some foreign astral plane that you can’t wrap your head around. Sometimes its ambition exceeds its grasp and the concept ends up merely a lost idea among the fiery wreckage. And sometimes it doesn’t make sense because it is so completely disjointed, alternating between excellence and rubbish, that the work as a whole hardly seems possible to have been created by the same artist.
American Band, by Drive-By Truckers is a perplexing piece of art that falls in that latter category. If I’m being completely honest, it was a chore to make myself continue listening to the first half of this album. Each song felt like an extremely raw demo, where the melodies hadn’t yet been figured out and each instrument was just hammering out a basic skeleton track. There was no nuance, no style, no reason to listen. Drive-By Truckers have been so consistent for the last 15 years so the level of ham-fisted awkwardness on this album is surprising. It was as if they had words they wanted to say and didn’t take the time to figure how to say them in a way that would make people want to listen.
With that being said, the second half of the album is fantastic. For every ounce of awful that Side A had, Side B contained a pound of awesome. Mike Cooley kicks off American Band‘s better half with Kinky Hypocrite and it is as rollicking of a Cooley song as there ever was. Patterson Hood follows that up with the 1-2 punch of Ever South, a generational road trip, and What It Means, one of the most empathetic and poignant songs ever written. Once They Banned Imagine is a soulful reminder that any fight we’re facing is one that we’ve seen before and Baggage is a candid look at someone else’s depression through the lenses of your own.
It is frustrating to hear so much greatness in an album and see that greatness sequestered to the back half of the album. It’s possible that the Cooley/Hood core of Drive-By Truckers have been writing together so long that they can’t quite tell when they’ve written something great or something merely passable. Maybe the internal stresses of fighting with other band members who have since come and gone were the sandpaper that smoothed the edges. DBT misses John Neff, Shonna Tucker, and Jason Isbell probably more than they realize. Solid bands who have been around for twenty years all get to this point, Rolling Stones, The Who, Foo Fighters, etc…the music still has traces of what attracted you to them in the first place but is missing the illusive ingredient that made it special. I think the Truckers also knew something needed to be shaken up because this is the first album since 2001 that hasn’t featured iconic cover art by the always wonderful Wes Freed. The artwork isn’t the problem though. DBT clearly have something to say and, yes, it’s something that should be heard but they’re simply too comfortable in what they’re doing at this point to make the album itself a compelling listen. They haven’t forgotten how to write great songs but they have, perhaps, temporarily forgotten what to do with them. See Drive-By Truckers when they come to town. Buy American Band. Listen to Side B on repeat.