Drive-By Truckers Continue Their Run of Thoughtful Songwriting and Straight-Up Rock & Roll with ‘English Oceans’
This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.
English Oceans has a few dead bodies. The album has some strippers, asshole politicians, broken relationships, girls making clowns of men, and people in small towns working jobs they hate. Which is to say, it’s a Drive-By Truckers album. And a damn good one at that. While their last record, 2011’s Go-Go Boots saw the band tip-toeing into R&B and Southern soul, English Oceans is a more focused effort that finds them eager to lay into their latest cast of motley characters over stomping, crunching riffs.
In general, I’ll admit to being skeptical of the storytelling style of songwriting. There are a lot of songwriters that throw in a handful of proper nouns, add some folksy wisdom, and tie it together with a facile ending. What separates a truly skilled songwriter from the rest is when those details add up to something meaningful, when a songwriter is able to turn a collection of stories into a cast of characters so that the situations, disconnected as they may be, are able to play off of each other to say something bigger than what any one individual story line can offer.
Patterson Hood’s songs on this record pull this off masterfully, examining relationships from differing points of view. Though the stories don’t appear to be connected, they work together to create something larger than themselves. There’s the woman in “Pauline Hawkins” resisting the bonds of genuine connection (“Love is like cancer / And I am immune”) pressed against the one in “When He’s Gone” clinging to a relationship that’s gone south (“She can’t stand him when he’s around / But she always misses him when he’s gone…”) The protagonist in “Hanging On” exhausts her familial relationship and ends up a wanderer searching for a replacement while “Walter Went Crazy” details a man driven mad by suburban life who burns down the house with his wife inside, “Matlock on the TV screen and her mama on the phone.” The album ends with “Grand Canyon”, written for a recently deceased friend of the band. Where most songwriters would try to wring every bit of pathos they could from such heavy subject matter, Hood opts for a more understated route, so that when the line “And I wonder how a life so sturdy / Could just one day cease to be” slips in it hits all the harder for it. After case studies on relationships broken, breaking, and doomed, we’re left with one that continues on even after they’re gone.
Cooley’s songs, on the other hand, don’t aspire for such thematic continuity, but lyrically this might be his best batch of songs to date. He has a talent for hiding profound wisdom in the most mundane situations and no where is that more apparent than the first verse of “Shit Shots Count”. What starts as small town scene setting, “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on / Don’t mix up which is which” turns pensive quick, “Suburban four lanes move like blood through an old man’s dying heart / Nothing but time to keep hope alive at the speed of a stream of tar…” Not that you need a lyric sheet to fully appreciate it, the song’s a shit kicker in it’s own right with a riff that sounds like churning a bucket of nails while lead guitar pierces through the mesh and the ascending bass line on the changes emerges from behind the clatter, lays down legs and barrels the whole thing over. “First Air Of Autumn”, on the other hand, is a slice of gentle folk with a quick heartbeat, not so much a story as scene setting with the occasional jab for the gut, “First air of autumn up your nose / Popcorn, heavy hairspray, nylon pantyhose / Please stand and bow your heads and pray you don’t get old…”
But it’s the almost-title-track “Made Up English Oceans” that proves to be the crux of the record. Based around an incessant acoustic guitar strum, Cooley lets out quick witted venom against backwards politics and the ones who believe it “See, once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow / Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural… ‘Cause only simple men can see the logic in whatever / Smarter men can whittle down so you can fit it on a sticker… They’ll live it like it’s gospel and they’ll quote it like it’s scripture…” It’s followed by Hood’s “Part Of Him”, a scathing take down set to the catchiest riff on the record and a jaunty beat. The wistful delivery belies the anger in lines like “He was elected / wing-nut raised and corn fed / tea bags dragging on the chamber floor.”
Now all that isn’t to say the album’s without fault. Most songs are a little too willing to find a riff and ride it through until the end of the song, coming and going without offering the kinds of dynamics and hooks that attract non-believers.
But that’s kind of missing the point. English Oceans thrives on the confidence of the songwriting. It’s a record whose stories, lyrics, and riffs construct a world meant to be lost in and experienced. There’s not a whole lot of bands who continue to show growth and refinement 10 albums in, but with English Oceans, the Drive-By Truckers show they have a lot more to offer.