New Skin for the Old Ceremony

The night before the release of The Unraveling, the new album from Drive-By Truckers that dropped January 31, Patterson Hood posted a picture to Instagram of the New York City skyline at night. He captioned the photo: “Thirty-one years ago, Lou Reed’s New York album was one of my two favorite albums of the year. Neil Young’s Freedom was the other one. Both of those album politically pointed to this current moment in time … Within a week there will be Brexit, the Iowa 2020 caucus and most likely Trump’s acquittal. The soul of America has been sold out (to paraphrase Marianne Faithful) ‘for such a low bid.’”

Lou Reed’s New York, generally regarded as one of his stronger solo efforts, documents the dark underbelly of Gotham in the late ’80s, turning its lens on the city’s street denizens and working-class hustlers, the folks struggling to pay rent to a landlord “who’s laughing till he wets his pants.” The album could’ve been written yesterday. As Reed sings on “Dirty Boulevard”: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em/ that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/ Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ‘em to death/ and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard.”

Young’s Freedom, the more well-known of the two, opens and closes with acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” respectively. It’s a song the Truckers uncork regularly in concert these days and it works as a sort of thematic centerpiece to the live show.

The Unraveling — the title of which recalls liberal economist Paul Krugram’s 2003 book The Great Unraveling — is very much in the spirit of the Young and Reed efforts. It’s also a suitemate of sorts to the band’s 2016 release American Band, the group’s most pointedly political album up to that point and one that attempted to grapple with hot-button issues of the republic like gun control and Black Lives Matter.

The Unraveling was recorded in a mere six days at Sun Studios in Memphis, and the immediacy shines through. The album is mostly a Hood affair, with co-principal songwriter Mike Cooley contributing just two songs. The opening track “Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun,” a Southern Gothic travelogue that recalls Springsteen’s Nebraska and namechecks Memphis photographer William Eggleston, is a bit of an outlier on the record. Cinematic in its scope, it’s a cryptic story that sets the tone for what’s to follow. The next song, “Armageddon’s Back In Town,” is a dirty rocker about the return of Reagan-era, Cold War paranoia, with Hood lamenting that “you can’t tell the rabbit from the hat” in his trademark Southern rasp. “Thoughts and Prayers,” the album’s first single, deals with the failure of the political establishment to take action on societal horrors like mass gun violence, while “21st Century USA” chronicles the dry rot of small-town life, painting Anytown, America as a place of Wells Fargos, KFCs, payday loan centers, and shitty bars, populated by folks working for shrinking pay while awaiting the return of the Savior. “Heroin Again” laments an acquaintance’s relapse on a drug that is finding its ways into new corners of American society as painkiller addictions rage and scripts get harder to come by.  “Babies In Cages,” a title that could be the authoritarian state writ large, is a plaintive cry of the heart, with Hood singing, “This ain’t the country our grandads fought for us to be.”

The Truckers, now 12 albums deep in a career full of twists and turns, have never been shrinking violets when it comes to politics, which is something of a rarity for rock bands from the American south. The group’s breakthrough double-album Southern Rock Opera was a deeply political affair, one could argue, exploring what Hood called “the duality of the Southern thing.” Hood was born in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama in 1964, the year of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a watershed piece of legislation that tilted much of the white, working-class south in the direction of the Republican party. Southern Rock Opera explored the nuances of race and politics throughout Alabama history, referencing everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to George Wallace, a politician now regarded as a forerunner to Trump. As The Unraveling drops, three Alabama politicians are vying for the Republican nomination for Senate, all of them desperately trying to out-Trump one another, with former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville suggesting Trump was chosen by God to be president, House Rep. Bradley Byrne running a series of blatantly racist ads that go well beyond dog-whistling, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions championing the record of a president who kicked him to the curb like a mangy dog. Clearly, not much has changed in the neighborhood.

“This is no time for circumlocution, this is no time for learned speech,” Lou Reed sings on New York. The Truckers would seem to agree. The Unraveling is as hard-boiled and direct as anything they’ve written, and there are no words minced. Politics and art have always been tricky bedfellows, and some artists come up short in their efforts, with the music amounting to nothing more than cheap dogma and rhetoric. And while this isn’t the best Truckers’ album by a long shot, it is a pretty good one, and one that achieves its objective of holding the mirror up to a country that’s bargained so much of its soul.

In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Hood said he wanted his kids to know which side of history he stood on when the smoke eventually clears. This album makes it abundantly clear.

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