REVIEW: The personal becomes the political for Drive-By Truckers on ‘The Unraveling’

Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling

Drive-by Truckers’ latest release, The Unraveling, is a cathartic emotional release speaking to the present political and social moment addressing everything from school shootings to the opioid crisis. Musically, it’s not a far departure from the Athens, Georgia quintet’s past endeavors, though it’s a step beyond 2016’s American Band.

The Unraveling
Drive-By Truckers
ATO Records, Jan. 31

The Unraveling is a blend of country- and folk-inspired rhythms with just enough twang and guitar to qualify as rock. It was tracked live and recorded in a dizzying 85 hours over the course of a single week in Memphis with the help of producer David Barbe and engineer Matt Ross-Spang, a life-long dream for the band.

But the emotional content of The Unraveling is a current that speaks not only to the unraveling of band mainstays Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, but also of the social fabric of the United States.

Lead single “Thoughts and Prayers” offers a bleak visage into the painful reality of school shootings with lyrics that illustrate the terrifying numbness of the images to which we’ve become accustomed: blood-splattered floors, toddlers in active shooter trainings and the anger many of us feel when the answer to the question of violence and gun control is nothing more than a thought and a prayer. It’s thrown out with as much emotion you offer as you order a latte before moving on to the next news item of the day. The video mirrors this pain with visceral images of anti-gun protests taking place on a near weekly basis.

Protest songs aren’t new for Drive-By Truckers, but this may be the most realized version of that effort. It’s a tough road to follow when you’re a Southern rock band from Alabama and writing songs about gun control.

“Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers,” Hood cries in desperation and anger. We could all use a pressure valve to keep from blowing up.

The Unraveling isn’t limited to gun violence and politics. It unveils the depth of the Middle American working class experience as it’s torn asunder. “Heroin Again” speaks to the shame and pain of addiction but also to the poverty and despair that leads people to it. Like the rest of the album, the song is less about the generalities of the opioid epidemic and more about the personal sadness and helplessness felt from watching someone you love fall into the trap of addiction.

“I thought you knew better than that,” they sing, taking on the voice of someone who can do nothing.

“Babies in Cages,” which was recorded live in one take, is impossible to ignore, much like the images of shoeless children in tin-foil blankets imprisoned at the border. Sorrow permeates every melody, making this album one of their finest.

The anger expressed by Hood and Cooley is something we’ve all been facing and if the album leaves little space for hope it does serve as a reminder to how small the world is.

“Grievance Merchants” was written for a friend of a friend who was murdered on a light-rail train in Portland. I remember this tragedy and the shock that ran raw through my community, even in my progressive hometown of Portland. I rode that train daily for many years. Even the album art features the Oregon Coast, a place that is nearer and dearer to me than any other. While horrific things happen everywhere and every day, it’s easy to forget until it happens in your town, on your train, to someone you know.

This sentiment, prioritizing the personal over the general, is what weaves this album together. The band has always maintained that politics are personal, and that this album is no different. But Hood describes The Unraveling as a response to the aftermath of the tragedies that were becoming commonplace as Drive-By Truckers released American Band in 2016. While the time between albums was the longest in the band’s history, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Hood described 2018 single “The Perilous Night” as a coda to American Band, but with the 24-7 news cycle bringing nothing but more pain, the band couldn’t just carry on as if nothing was wrong.

The album exhibits a cohesiveness that comes from a fully mature group. In all the comings and goings of the various band members, Hood and Cooley have come into their own both as musicians and as people.

— Cara Mico

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