It’s been twenty-five years, give or take, that the world has enjoyed the highly specific miracle of the Drive-By Truckers and no one is more shocked than them. Their remarkable new LP Welcome 2 Club XIII is a downright Proustian series of meditations on how exactly they got here and exactly where “here” really is. Following the scorched-earth, present-shock political broadsides of 2016’s American Band and 2020’s The Unraveling, the new DBT turns the forensic lens of history’s most literary boogie-band back inward: nine songs over forty-two minutes that ponder the countless hard lessons and commensurate good breaks that led to the DBT’s remarkably, beautifully unlikely ascent to the status of American institution. It’s one hell of a record- by turns as dense and menacing as 2004’s epic The Dirty South and as ebulliently slapdash and Stones-y as 2014’s English Oceans. Let’s indulge in a track by track overview of one of the very best records of this blighted and defiled year.
Every time you think these cats are surely out of ways to surprise you, they pull something like this out of their panoramically weird bag of tricks. Seven minutes of punishing groove and traumatic recovered memory, “The Driver” is like “Tangled Up In Blue” by-way-of “Detroit Rock City.” Or maybe it’s like “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” combined with “Convoy.” Fuck, I don’t know! A raft of near-death road experiences, young man’s blues, old man’s anxieties, and Replacements references followed by a guitar freak-out reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub’s “Everything Flows.” A perfect rock ‘n’ roll scene setter. Empathy for the devil.
Maria’s Awful Disclosures
With a title like Flannery O’Connor and a spiraling-story song in the manner of Kristofferson and David Berman, Mike Cooley’s “Maria’s Awful Disclosures” is a buoyant nightmare apparently based on the sensational account of a 19th-century nun and her 1836 memoir The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which depicted a Catholic church sanctioning everything from marital infidelity to infanticide. Hands down one of the best grooves and most disturbing songs in the entire DBT catalog. Scariest line about the innate relationship between moral relativism and unchecked power: “What nobody saw/ Was anybody’s call.” Chilling.
Shake and Pine
Patterson Hood’s closest contemporary in terms of brilliant melodies wed to prismatic, often tragi-comic narratives is American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel, whose chronicle of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s ran parallel to Hood’s exploration of an evermore exploited working-class splintering into self-sabotaging race and class divisions in the American south. “Shake and Pine” reminds me of one of Eitzel’s great social-realist anthems — a love song drunk with a thirst for dark adventure abetted by dangerous self-delusion:
Seems the more I know
The less I have the answers to these things I sow
That eat me like a cancer ’til there’s nothing left
For you to grab ahold of ’til I spiral out of control
Hood may be addressing a friend in crisis or an estranged lover. Hell, with its Merle Haggard summoning reference to being “lost in the footlights and the fog” he may be talking to himself. As likely as not it’s all of these things. Self-awareness, or the lack thereof, has long been perhaps the single most prominent theme of DBT: how do we see ourselves in relation to our community, our family, our careers. On “Shake and Pine” Hood has caught a glimpse of something truly unnerving. He’s looked into the mirror and seen a rock ‘n’ roll ghost.
We will never wake you in the morning
An elegiac, slow-burning march whose rolling-thunder rumble wouldn’t sound out of place on Darkness on the Edge of Town, “We will never wake you up in the morning” is one of the saddest songs Patterson Hood has ever written, and the man’s been known for a weeper or two. A just-the-facts recounting of the last days of a reckless fellow traveler in trouble, the fatigue in Hood’s voice is palpable even as he wrings some of his most decorous poetry ever from a scenario he has seen too many times and can no longer stomach:
You drift into narcotic splendor of your never-ending bender
Eyes glazed but somehow smiling like a haze across the skyline
You down another glass then drift off from our grasp
The pandemic was brutal for everyone, I get it, but for those whose livelihood is music it almost could not have been worse. Unable to tour, and increasingly strangled by a revoltingly larcenous streaming economy that considers songwriting royalties to be a quaint relic of a bygone pre-tech era, for many there was literally nowhere else to turn. Given the longstanding view of American society in particular that musicians should either be independently wealthy or forego baseline health care entirely, it was a bridge too far for many. A lot of us — it felt like all of us — lost people we loved to despair. There are few worse feelings than another goodbye to another good friend.
Welcome 2 Club XIII
Following the well-earned emotional bloodletting of “We will never wake you in the morning”, the comedic glam-bounce of “Welcome 2 Club XIII” is a welcome bit of levity. Recollecting the travails of the pre-DBT Hood-Cooley band Adam’s House Cat, it’s a Fellini-esque parade of the oddball drifters and outcasts who denizened the only venue in Muscle Shoals that would book a punk band in the 80’s. Hood’s cavalcade of coked out spandex queens, Foghat cover bands and gas huffing parking lot dwellers is hugely funny but also sneakily poignant. If it’s true that he allows “our glory days did kinda suck,” it’s a sentiment rendered with an appreciative subtext. Most of us outcasts have been lucky to have something like a Club XIII in our lives — the kind of place where the freaks come together to form a family.
Forged In Hell And Heaven Sent
Carrying on the theme of reckoning with a reckless past, “Forged In Hell And Heaven Sent” is a love letter to an old running buddy from Hood’s reprobate days which aches with the desire for a genuine connection but pulses with the reality of the estrangement that their differing paths has made insoluble. It’s a wise and wonderful song which serves as a sort of decades-down-the-line response to The Clash masterpiece “Stay Free.” As is so often the case with Hood and Cooley’s writing, it’s the attention to on-the-surface throwaway details that invests the song with so much power — phrases dropped in conversationally, almost subliminally: “two years since your accident.” “Guess she’s had to grow up pretty fast.” The shrugging aside “The whole world slipped out from under us” could be loose talk between old friends or a one sentence summation of the past fifty years of American life. That’s what these guys do.
Every Single Storied Flameout
Mike Cooley’s incredible “Every Storied Flame Out” comes across like a borderline-manic update of his previous classic “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” following a non-stop, three-week Crazy Horse bender. On an LP that pokes and prods at the rock mythology that the group has readily fetishized and engaged in, this is more like a knife right in its guts:
Every single storied flameout’s
Purgatory playlist skirts the pay-outs
Anyone from his loins might collect
His is a legacy in tourist traps
Conspiracies that took him out
And tattoos someone else lives to regret
Try putting that in a jukebox musical. This is one of Cooley’s greatest songs from the lurching groove to the James Burton-worthy riffs to the Zevon-level punchlines. When the horns kick in it could almost be Sticky Fingers. It’s also the closest thing the band has done to a full apostasy. They gave their soul to rock ‘n’ roll. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
Billy Ringo In The Dark
Like one of the great, white-knuckle ballads that populate the back side of Big Star’s Sister Lovers, “Billy Ringo In The Dark” is the moment when all of the wisecracks, and the obfuscating and the potent distractions of chemicals and fame finally prove insufficient to fight off the root pain that is driving you — is The Driver — towards self-immolation. Hood starts out:
When you wake up in the morning and you ask yourself
“Why does it even matter if I exist at all?
Which is Hamlet, yes, and Camus, and Johnny Thunders trying and failing to put his arms around a memory. Those were people that died. The world is noisy, crowded and awful. There are lines evoking The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment”:
Life came down upon you with the weight of fallen worlds
The sound of screaming dogs in the silence fetal curled
But Billy Ringo — he of the mysterious title — persists. Through the endless nights and the antic days and the things he can’t confess to and the things he freely says. Like John Fogerty, DBT leaves a light on and Billy Ringo is still hanging around. Might be by a thread, might be a prayer, but it’s not by a noose.
A perfect companion piece to a perfect opener, “Wilder Days” is not so much a closing statement as it is an assessment of the wreckage. Over six minutes and twenty-eight seconds of loping pedal steel, killer backing vocals by Schaefer Llana and a liturgical recitation of poor risk management in his youth, Hood wraps up this extraordinary LP on the powerfully ambivalent note that it was always leading to. There have been casualties along the way in the quarter of a century that DBT has been with us. Friends will arrive and friends will disappear. And yet, here they tremulously stand, survivor’s guilt and all. Welcome to Club XIII.