“For better or worse, English Oceans is a much more controlled album than we’re used to seeing from Drive-By Truckers.”
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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
Drive-By Truckers songs take place in towns like Huntsville, Ala. Maybe the narrator gets pulled over driving through Rogersville, Tenn. or recalls a fling he had in Texarkana, Ark. For most of us on the Central Coast, those settings might as well be foreign countries, but for Drive-By Truckers, the South is almost always the lead character.
Master songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are the only remaining members from the original 1998 lineup. Drive-By Trucker came into its own with 2002’s masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, which brought distinctly Springsteenian characters and settings to life, set against the backdrop of northern Alabama. After moving to Athens, Ga. — a hub for Southern bands that wouldn’t mind if Nashville were bombed into oblivion — Drive-By Truckers cemented its reputation as a hard-nosed, whiskey-soaked rock band with a Skynyrd-esque three-guitar attack and a stable of capable storytellers.
Nobody does righteous anger better than Drive-By Truckers (see “Three Great Alabama Icons” or “Sink Hole”), so it’s exciting to see them return to the rich vein of Southern politics after 2011’s more story-driven Go-Go Boots. This time, Hood and Cooley use a couple of songs to turn their guns on the prominent Georgian political strategist Lee Atwater — sort of a proto-Karl Rove whose ruthless and ethically questionable campaigns helped elect Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
On a typical Drive-By Truckers album, Hood writes and sings most of the material with occasional contributions from the other members, but English Oceans has Cooley take a heavier songwriting load. Possibly his best work to date is the title track, written from Atwater’s perspective as he describes his process of hoodwinking voters. I’ll admit I got a bit nervous when the band announced in 2013 it was working on an album titled English Oceans, but the titular reference to Atwater’s false promises sets the album’s tone perfectly. “They’ll live it like it’s gospel and quote it like it’s scripture,” Cooley sings over an atypically subdued acoustic arrangement.
Hood is a bit more direct on “Part of Him,” which constantly threatens to explode but maintains an even keel throughout. “He was an absolute piece of shit, to tell the truth,” Hood sings with a tinge of sadness in his voice. “But he never told the truth to me.”
For better or worse, English Oceans is a much more controlled album than we’re used to seeing from Drive-By Truckers. Hood’s “Hanging On,” in which a father kicks his lazy son out the door, might have been a deafening throwdown were it written five years ago, but on English Oceans, its calm composure makes the song much more affecting and impactful.
The songwriting on English Oceans is also a bit less consistent than normal. It’s hard not to view “Natural Light” or “Primer Coat” as little more than filler, but there are certainly some gems mixed in. Hood’s eye for detail and car crash imagery on “When Walter Went Crazy” make for the gorgeous kind of character sketch the band perfected on Go-Go Boots.
Ultimately, English Oceans suffers from a mild overreliance on mid-tempo songs and a too-light touch on the guitars after the vintage one-two openings of “Shit Shots Count” and “When He’s Gone.” Still, a new Drive-By Truckers album is a cause for celebration, and English Oceans reminds us Southerners tell the best stories.