We are overcome: With 'The Unraveling,' the Drive-By Truckers test the limits of protest music

Andy Tenille

Andy Tenille

I’m just so fucking tired, and some days that’s all I can say that feels true.

Overuse has flattened the language with which we struggle to articulate our rage into advertorial sloganeering. “Resistance” is a facile hashtag, “greatness” a toxic euphemism. Every political discussion (and every discussion is now political) has become more ritual than communication, each response as inevitable as a step in a logic sequence—if A then B then C then D—and we repeat our lines with greater intensity and less coherence till they’re not so much professed beliefs as ideological reflexes, like some residual synaptic impulse sparking one last twitch from the hand of a corpse.

Listen to The Unraveling and you’ll hear that not even the Drive-By Truckers are immune. For a quarter-century, Alabama-born Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have scrutinized and reimagined their Southern heritage, wielding the sweep and crunch of the region’s freewheeling guitar rock as a weapon against the complacency of their like-complected, drawl-sharing cohort and diagnosing good ol’ boy stupidity as a pathetic dodge of responsibility. “We figured this shit out,” their songs insist. “What’s your excuse?”

To make art from history is to make the present comprehensible, to sing about a cultural ill is to render it an undeniable fact, and American Band, released about a month before the 2016 election, was the most clear-eyed analysis of a nation’s murderous heart that horrifically befogged year allowed. Hood’s disquisition on Ferguson and Trayvon Martin (“You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street”) was even called “What It Means,” and though he wasn’t arrogant enough to supply an answer to that title he wasn’t cynical enough to deny there was one.

The album’s strength lay in its storytelling. In the spirit of “Saturday Night Special” by Lynyrd Skynyrd (the band that sat at the center of the Truckers’ 2001 concept-album-as-history-lesson, Southern Rock Opera), the Truckers saw guns not merely as noxious death-facilitating devices but as demonic totems invested with a culture’s long history of abusing power. On “Ramon Casiano,” Cooley traced the career of NRA chief Harlon B. Carter back to his shooting of a Mexican teen at the border, chipping away at the self-serving myths of individual liberty, while Hood’s “Guns of Umpqua” contrasted a peaceful nature hike and an active shooter lockdown to disturbing effect.

But stories require a faith that causes have effects, and the Truckers’ latest, The Unraveling, is a response to four years of narrative breakdown, the aftermath of enduring a whir of events that are forgotten by each subsequent news cycle. The Unraveling captures our age of parallel monologues within an inane shoutatorium that masquerades as political discourse, and grapples with what’s still worth saying when every crime is an open secret left unpunished—a world, as Hood sings, of “symbolisms so pronounced/That there’s nothing left to wonder or explain.”

“It’s not a poetic time” is how Hood explainined the album’s lyrical directness to the Wall Street Journal, and I suppose one more curse of a blunt age is that it demands that we speak its language.

For the first three tracks, the title of The Unraveling seems simply to refer to the ordinary, excruciating fraying of everyday relationships over the course of a lifetime. “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” rides a gently pulsing drawing-room piano into an understated yet grand string accompaniment, a quiet prelude to a disquieted set of songs. Hood shreds his voice to declare “It’s all my fault” on “Armageddon’s Back in Town,” and a Keith Moon-like drum crescendo recalls the days when rock could deliver the catharsis it promised; then Cooley warns some hothead about “puttin’ crosshairs between you and hindsight” on “Slow Ride Argument,” suggesting that maybe the last thing we need right now is for rock and roll to exploit our desire to combust.

After that elliptical prelude, though, Hood gets direct. Maybe too direct. “Thoughts and Prayers” echoes the kneejerk sanctimonious response to each latest mass murder we’ve all heard too many times. And yet, repeating it bitterly back at its speakers has become a cliché in itself, as Hood himself is well aware, and you can hear him struggle with a way to make art from these dead words, but all he arrives at is a climactic “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.” Similarly, “Babies in Cages,” about the horror of our border’s concentration camps, repeats that title like a venomous koan. There should be something more bracing about Hood’s rejection of nuance here. Maybe when we’re shouting the lyrics along with a like-minded crowd at the Palace this weekend there will be.

Other songs step back to provide context. Cooley remains ever relaxed and colloquial. A sharp student of false consciousness, his “Grievance Merchants,” about how young male virgins and geriatric Viagra abusers alike are exploited by corporate fascists, is a worthy sequel to American Band’s dissection of the post-Confederate mindset, “Surrender Under Protest.” And with “21st Century USA,” Hood passes through Gillette, Wyoming (“a town that’s named for razor blades/All American but Chinese made”) in search of hard truths, observing from a distance the men and women who “get together late at night at bars/And bang each other like crashing cars.”

Which brings us back to exhaustion—mine, yours, theirs. Great rock and roll has emerged from dissolution; ensconced in late-night druggy escapism, albums such as Exile on Main Street and Neil Young’s Ditch Trilogy allowed young men to bask in the haggard sexuality of premature spiritual depletion. But the Truckers are middle-aged guys who’ve stuck around long enough to realize they have something to lose beyond their own lives, and The Unraveling is marked by the soul-weariness of the blues without its promise of endurance.

We either already know how bad things are, or we’re so steeped in willful denial that no amount of insistence will rouse us. So for all its stirrings of protest, The Unraveling reaches its finest moment with the closing “Awaiting Resurrection,” which simmers for nearly nine minutes. Hood begins with a numb, dazed catechism—“Is there an evil in this world?/Yes, there’s an evil in this world”—before casting his thoughts about desperately to latch on to some—any—insight that will have an impact. But he’s left at the same impasse we’ve all already reached: When there’s nothing left to say, what do you do?

Drive-By Truckers
With: Kelsey Waldon
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Sat. March 14
Tickets: 18+; $29.50-$45; more info here