It's obviously not always necessary to analyze where you grew up. If it doesn't weigh heavily on your mind, more power to you. I'm from Cleveland, and though I haven't lived there for 15 years, I'm still obsessed with it. From the image exported through the hip screeds of Pere Ubu and Harvey Pekar to the formative realities of AC/DC cover bands, dog-painted Browns fans, salt mines, and Flats bars.
On 2001's Southern Rock Opera, the Alabaman Drive-By Truckers dove similarly into their own wreck. Charismatic digresser Patterson Hood and stoic road-rocker Mike Cooley doubled back from their punkabilly kiss-offs to cubistically confront that "Southern thing" that punk rock and G.G. Allin couldn't help them shake. They conjured the dead--plumbing their own love-hate relationship to Lynyrd Skynyrd, inhabiting that band's journey from heady Jacksonville takeoff to Louisiana crash (even imagining a fading walk-into-the-glow twilight), delivering an eerie meta-rock suite with psych dissertation potential.
The Truckers' newest record was going to be called Heathens, after the Patterson Hood tune that gives the most wrenching voice to the album's theme: failing the ones we love and getting a rep for it. Bowie had already snagged a similar title, but Decoration Day's fine, too, highlighting the record's second-best song, by newcomer guitarist-songwriter Jason Isbell. Blessed with a shivery baritone, Isbell has the weird kid-gravity of the young Jay Farrar, and he's a better storyteller. On the title track, he sings the dark gothic rue of a son forced to carry on a feud in the name of a hated dead father. On the wistful sing-along "Outfit," Isbell takes the voice of his own dad, who imparts the advice, "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/Don't ever say your car is broke/Don't sing with a fake British accent/Don't act like your family's a joke," and resolves with a caveat for his neo-Lennonite boy, "Don't tell 'em you're bigger than Jesus/Don't give it away."
Cooley is on fire as well, with "Marry Me," an Eagles rip that manages to transcend that fact, and "When the Pin Hits the Shell," a frustrated berating of a friend who committed suicide (Hood weighs in on the friend's death as well with "Do It Yourself"). Once seeming like simply a loyal sideman and enabler for Hood's effusions, Cooley now obviously keeps things rolling. You get the feeling that even Hood's most inspired stage banter could twist itself in tangles, that his aw shucks neuroses and iconic obsessions could begin to eddy on the side of the stream. Cooley, with his brisk picking and quasi-rockabilly uptempo attack, stays in the flow.
But Decoration Day finds both Cooley and Hood stewing about the ugly things that road life does to home life. On "Marry Me," Cooley croons "Rock 'n' roll means well/But it can't help telling young boys lies." And of a rapidly crumbling long-distance relationship, he observes that "'Lord knows, I can't change' sounds better in a song." Hood laments on the dirgelike "Your Daddy Hates Me" that "It's a little too late for writing love songs/But I never did anything on time."
That sadness and loss is, as usual, most saturating in Hood's contributions. If you've ever seen him live, you know this guy can regale a rapt barful of drunks with both the happy story of Mom running off with a true-love trucker and a lengthy historical exegesis of the life and legacy of George Wallace. Here, on "Sink Hole," he dons the persona of a foreclosed farmer who fantasizes about killing his banker. The son of a Muscle Shoals bassist, Hood may have put Skynyrd to rest, but the question of home and heritage lives on in this song's farmer's woe: "He'd better stay off my farm/'Cause it was my Daddy's and his Daddy's before/And his Daddy's before and his Daddy's before."
"Heathens" is a quieter meditation on the perils of staying and going. It's about wishing for the power to stay put, but facing the interpersonal criminality of the touring life. The song's hopeful, steady, ethereal roll, and once-only angelic ascent--on the word "heathens," here used to describe the lovers' bond ("We were heathens in their eyes at the time")--crumbles into the impotent, keep-on-keepin'-on defensiveness that carries the day: "And I never hear a single word you say/When you tell me not to have my fun/It's the same old shit that I ain't gonna take off anyone." Decoration Day is a collection of sad revelations amid much revelry. So when you're there inside the three-guitar squall, hollering along to smiling Hood's "Hell No, I Ain't Happy," be sure to swig an extra belt for those sweet contradictions.
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