The Drive-By Truckers have entered 2008 at the top of their creative game — but it wasn't an easy journey. The band lost the galvanizing force of co-songwriter Jason Isbell in 2007, and its last two releases, 2004's The Dirty South and 2006's A Blessing and a Curse, were competent, but not nearly as compelling as earlier triumphs like 2001's Southern Rock Opera and 2003's Decoration Day. Brighter Than Creation's Dark, released at the end of January, is the band's seventh studio effort in its decade-plus career, and offers proof that these songwriters have been incorrectly pigeonholed into Southern rock's stylistic confines. While the Truckers have hardly headed into pop territory, they're now using the country-tinged classic rock of their youth as a jumping-off point for songs that are at equal turns sharper, more adventurous, and more mature than anything they've done to date. The band members have developed beyond a wall of petrol-fueled guitars and good-old-boy grins; they've become distinct writers with strong voices.
Lyrically, the familiar themes — poverty, violence, heartbreak, and general hell-raising — remain vivid on Brighter, but the shading is much finer. Patterson Hood has always made an engrossing frontrunner in the race for lead songwriter, historically shouldering the majority of tracks per album and holding the spotlight with his left-leaning politics. But his partner in crime, Mike Cooley, comes to the foreground as well this time around. Standout tracks like "Lisa's Birthday" (an affectionate sketch of a party girl who never goes quietly) and "Checkout Time in Vegas" (a bleak nightlife landscape involving "a bloody nose, empty pockets, a rented car with a trunk full of guns") highlight the quiet power of Cooley's drowsy drawl and his knack for cherry-picking details that make his subjects pop like Raymond Carver characters. It was last fall's stripped-down "Dirt Underneath" tour that really afforded Cooley the chance to stretch out as a lyricist, Hood says. "We worked the majority of these songs on that tour," he explains. "Cooley really started writing a bunch — he wrote more than I had seen him write in years."
Even bassist Shonna Tucker — previously hidden behind her shy smile and grounded in the backbone of the band — steps out with three of her own compositions on Brighter. She reveals a rich, crystalline voice evocative of the siren quality that makes Neko Case such a seductress.
Hood remains the band's spiritual anchor, however, and his fearlessness and fury work dramatically throughout Brighter, particularly on a pair of songs inspired by the Iraq war. "The Home Front" unfolds in the frantic paces of a soon-to-be widow waiting for the inevitable bad news, while "That Man I Shot" walks in the grim shadow of the Green Berets Hood met backstage one evening. "All three of them had just gotten back from Iraq and one was going back, so for his sendoff party, they took him to see us," he recalls. "We ended up drinking a bottle of whiskey with them and it ended up being kind of a heated, intense night. We definitely had some different viewpoints, but at the same time, there was no denying the fact that they had been [in Iraq]. They were badass motherfuckers who had seen a lot of shit. Sometimes you just meet people that affect you like that out there."
It's this willingness to explore life's harrowing experiences that ultimately gives the Truckers such emotional gravity. "I've always thought of our records as movies without the movie," Hood says. "I think in more cinematic terms ... painting a picture and setting a tone. Our music's very visual." But with this band, it's as much about volume as it is about visualization. "For people that want to analyze it or whatever," he says with a laugh, "I say stop analyzing and turn it up!" Sage advice from a man who knows that endearing rock 'n' roll should be as brawny as it is brainy.