Directness is the defining characteristic of the songs that Patterson Hood brings to the Drive-By Truckers. He writes what he means, with a big open heart full of empathy for the characters in his songs and a barbed sense of indignation on behalf of people getting a raw deal. That has included a lot of folks over the years, including the sick, uninsured and out of work on “Putting People on the Moon” and an Iraqi war veteran wrestling with PTSD on “The Man I Shot,” from 2004’s The Dirty South and 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, respectively.
Hood’s empathy was stretched like never before on the Truckers’ 2016 album American Band, an apprehensive look at a fractured nation divided over race, guns and, what Hood called, the “coming storm” of Trumpism. Things haven’t improved in the three and a half years since then, and the band’s new album, The Unraveling, is just as political as its predecessor, shaped by what the past few years have wrought: more shootings, more race-based violence, an opioid crisis, an immigration policy based largely on cruelty. The Truckers have been paying attention, and they’re pissed off: “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers,” Hood jeers on “Thoughts and Prayers,” a robust acoustic-based song marked with booming accents on piano.
Apart from the blazing riff on “Armageddon’s Back in Town” and the clanging guitars on “Slow Ride Argument,” much of the music on The Unraveling has a moody feel that fits the subject matter. For all the Truckers’ anger and disgust, there’s also a sense of incredulity in many of the nine songs here. Hood mentions more than once the difficulty of explaining events in the news to his children: why the best our elected officials can do after each new school or church shooting is offer thoughts and prayers, or what kind of moral breakdown could lead to the United States government wresting little kids away from their parents and confining them in pens on the southern border. The latter is the subject of “Babies in Cages,” which pairs a slinky R&B groove with wrenching lyrical imagery and anguished disbelief that our country has come to this as Hood repeats the title at the end of each verse in a flat tone.
Hood isn’t the only songwriter in the Drive-By Truckers, of course, though he’s the more prolific one—seven of the nine tracks on The Unraveling are Hood’s. His counterpart, Mike Cooley, often takes a more oblique approach, letting listeners suss out for themselves what he means: see “A Ghost to Most,” from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which might be about the response to Hurricane Katrina, or “Ramon Casiano,” from American Band, a cagey song about the rise of an NRA ideologue that never mentions the man’s name. It doesn’t take very long, however, to figure out Cooley’s meaning here on mid-tempo rocker “Grievance Merchants,” a scornful poke at the cultural delusions of white nationalists and the right-wing propaganda machine that helps feed their grudges and resentments until they lash out. “Give a boy a target for his grievance / And he might get it in his head they need to pay,” Cooley sings over thick, overdriven guitars.
Hood and Cooley write separately, usually without talking about what each of them is working on. One of the most impressive, and uncanny, aspects of their 30-year collaboration is how often they end up writing about the same themes. It gives the group’s albums a cohesion that Hood and Cooley probably couldn’t script if they tried. While their symbiosis has helped make the Drive-By Truckers one of the most solid and successful indie-rock acts of the past 25 years or so, the band’s fans are the real beneficiaries. Even when the subject matter is as bleak as it can be on The Unraveling, the Truckers always have something to say that’s worth listening to.
Revisit Drive-By Truckers’ 2010 Daytrotter session: