Three years off don’t mean shit to the Drive-By Truckers. There’ve been line-up changes (bye-bye, Shonna – we’ll miss your token ballads), solo records from co-frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and relentless touring – it may not be Robert Pollard levels of prolific, but it’s as good as you’re gonna get from beer-for-breakfast types like these. Still, it’s the first record back after a pretty hefty two-album punch – the soul-inflected Go-Go Boots and the charging career highlight The Big To-Do - and there seems to be a lot at stake for their don’t-call-it-a-comeback, even if they’ve never exactly been the coolest band on the block. “She can’t stand to have him around,” Hood sings on “When He’s Gone”, “but she always misses him when he’s gone.” Well, quite.
It takes precisely three seconds of “Shit Shots Count” to prove that Drive-By Truckers still mean business; for one thing, there’s that title. I mean, damn, Cooley – we leave you alone for three years, and that’s your opening salvo? You magnificent bastard. And the first riff you hear on English Oceans? OK, it’s been purloined wholesale from the Sex Pistols, pretending that their holiday in the sun was really just somewhere down in Memphis, rolling with the Stones (those horns!). And then there’s that blanket of warm, fuzzy, analogue goodness that envelops the whole thing. DBT have never been afraid to rock, but this may be the first time you can hear them sounding so comfortable while doing it.
In fact, after a self-confessed period of writer’s block over the last few years, Mike Cooley is running this motherfucker. The man responsible for the band’s most effortless-sounding classics (“Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” still reduces me to tears every time my favourite bar plays it – always on my request) is on peak form. In fact, every one of his tracks on English Oceans – and there are, count ‘em, six – are keepers, with his story-telling in top form. The aforementioned “Shit Shots Count” and the swaggering “Hearing Jimmy Loud” contain some of his most profoundly quotable lines (“She had a tanning habit – she’s like a talking leather couch…”), while the spaghetti-western atmospherics of almost-title-track “Made Up English Oceans” show an intriguing new facet to his writing.
Patterson Hood, on the other hand…well, something just seems a little rote about his contributions. Maybe it’s down to just how much of his A-game he brought to his 2012 solo effort Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, but there’s not all that much of his stuff on Oceans that lands in the same way as Cooley’s. It all sounds a little…muted? Resigned? Even the solos (though it’s entirely possibly I’m reading too much into it, and they are, in fact, Cooley’s) just seem pretty by-the-book. As likeable as a song like “The Part of Him” is – a ramblin’, finger-pickin’ diatribe against some anonymous, dumbass politician or other – it’s too easy a target…though finding two convincing rhymes for “Nixonian” is certainly one of Hood’s more impressive feats.
That said, Hood’s quieter moments are what resonate most here – the self-explanatory Carver-esque story “When Walter Went Crazy”, drenched in piano and mournful pedal steel, shows that there’s more to him than just an easy line in shit-kickers. Better still is the song which pulls the entire record into sharp focus; dedicated to the band’s co-conspirator, confidant and “merch man” Craig Lieske, “Grand Canyon” (could a song this huge-sounding go by any other name?) closes the album on a suitably pensive note. Hood’s voice cracks on almost every line, each of which pays a more mournful, respectable tribute to one of the band’s best friends:
“If the recently departed make the sunsets to say farewell to the ones they leave behind
There were technicolor hues to see our sadness through as the sun over Athens said goodbye.”
Even the guitar solo sounds like it could break down and bawl at any point, and the song crashes to an end in the only way it could – with mountains drums piercing a fog of feedback.
And that’s what makes Drive-By Truckers such a necessary band. Even at their most maddeningly inconsistent (and, let’s be honest, English Oceans is most likely their worst record since the splintering sounds of A Blessing and a Curse) you know there’s still something that will pull you back in – be it a barroom brawler or a bedroom bawler. The group may be battling their more indulgent tendencies at times, but Drive-By Truckers always find a path back towards redemption somewhere along the line.