For anyone who thought 2016’s American Band would be the most explicitly political record of the Drive-By Truckers career, the quintet has nine new songs that’ll likely convince you otherwise. In 2016, the longtime road warriors found new life with its election year treatise, which saw the band more revved up than they had been in more than a decade, delivering screeds about unsexy topics like the violent history of the confederate flag and the white supremacist roots of the NRA.
Four years later, the band doubles down on its Alabama progressivism with The Unraveling, an album whose subjects (the border crisis, mass shootings, the opioid epidemic) are so plainly stated that it can make the hyper-charged American Band feel subtle. Unfiltered fury suits the Truckers well. Well past the point of mere righteous anger, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the band’s twin songwriters and lead singers, are at their best on The Unraveling when they’re articulating their own crude outrage.
For Hood, it’s phony right-wing piety: “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers,” he sings on, yes, a song called “Thoughts and Prayers.” For Cooley, who carried half the load on American Band but only contributes a couple songs here, it’s the Tucker Carlsons and Ben Shapiros of the world: “Merchants selling young men reclamation,” he sings on the fiery “Grievance Merchants,” sounding the most pissed-off he’s been since “Zip City.” “Merchants selling old men back their dreams.” (Cooley’s other song? An ode to joyriding to “Slow Ride”).
That type of wrath isn’t easy to maintain. If songs like “Guns of Umpqua” and “Ever South” found Hood reflecting on American disgrace on the band’s last go-around, he is much more interested in channeling disgust on The Unraveling. But there are several moments–see the polemics “Heroin Again” and “Babies in Cages”– that despite their worthy intentions, never quite pack the punch of Hood at his pissed-off “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy” best.
The unprettiness, of course, is the point. “I didn’t want to disguise it in flowery, poetic language,” Hood has said of The Unraveling. “It’s not a poetic time.” On the eve of its 25th year as a band, the Drive-By Truckers’ 12th record is less a creative high peak than a sturdy reminder of the band’s admirable persistence. And like every Truckers record, the plentiful moments of middle American reportage (“21st Century USA”) and fractured underdog beauty (“Armageddon’s Back in Town”) make The Unraveling, at the very least, another sturdy addition to the band’s almost peerless discography.