A Blessing and a Curse
Release date: April 25, 2006
You hear about “the greatest band in the world” being dropped on many a group, desperately given this medal in hopes they’ll use it to “save rock-n-roll,” whatever that means. But no band that has had to suffer under this artificial responsibility has succeeded so triumphantly as Drive-By Truckers. Equal parts back porch historians, runaway drunken firecrackers, and poets of the hard life and how to live it; they came on the scene and set the bar higher for what you can do with the music we love. The characters in their songs have left gals at the altar, wrecked their cars, woken up on the cold floor and even killed themselves a number of times over the years, breathing some new intelligent life, not just into rock music but, into rockers everywhere. Many a critic, including myself, have placed upon them the treacherous mantle of being The Best Rock Band In The Word, and they wear this title like the blessing and the curse it is…I love this band.
Their three front men/guitarists/songwriters: Patterson Hood, long time running partner Mike Cooley and guitar wizard Jason Isbell, make for a triumvirate that would crumble a lesser band. Hood explains, “We are all very close, in a family kind of way, albeit a sometimes dysfunctional one. We fight, sometimes very hard, but couldn't continue with such strong opinions and personalities without a huge degree of mutual respect for each other personally and artistically.” In a live setting, that respect takes shape as intricate, driving interlocking hard guitar rock, nimble as a ballet dancer with too much Jack Daniels in her, and with the emotional impact of Walker Percy slamming into you with an out of control stock car. But all hyperbole aside, they avoid the trap of caricature in their songs, instead building their poetry out of the sweetest and harshest thing available in this world – love and the pain that comes with it.
DBT’s 7th album, A Blessing and a Curse, takes in all the elements that make them great and condenses them into the tightest, hardest rocking set of songs they’ve yet to produce. Their influences in the past have been immortalized in song, but here we see them integrated into the songs. The opening track “Feb 14” sounds like the best, most poetic song the Replacements never released and Cooley’s devastatingly great rocker “Gravity’s Gone” does the same thing with a Creedence Clearwater Revival backwoods twang. Isbell chimes in with “Easy on Yourself” a subtler yet more biting warning fable in the vein of 2003’s “Outfit.” And just when you think that these former class clowns have moved on to the honor society, they kick in with the hilarious “Aftermath USA” - as good a train-wreck, surmise-the-damage classic as anything from Waylon or Merle.
Everything on this album is a notch sharper, a logical progression from 2004’s neutron bomb of a record The Dirty South, pushing beyond singing about the South to universal themes of love and pain and determination with more drive and more passion than they have ever displayed before. Isbell opens his throat and delivers some vocals so soaring, so potent on the chorus of “Daylight” that they give me chills every single time. “Wednesday” weaves a dense elliptical tale about a man losing a woman, and maybe dying, maybe not even existing. “Goodbye” has the warm glow of a candle, illuminating those moments when things work in this life and when they fall apart. It’s beautiful stuff - deeper, warmer, and more real than anything else you might find out there.
But the real push forward on this record can be found in its heaviest songs. The 10,000 pound subject matter of an infant cousin dying before you were born, and how that presence persists, makes “Little Bonnie” possibly the most poignant song they’ve ever put to tape. The final track, “A World of Hurt,” offers a sermon against suicide (a recurrent theme in their songs) but Hood explains it’s much bigger than that: “Suicide is only one part. The song is really about learning how to live, or at least striving to learn how to live. To love is to open your heart up to unbearable pain, but what good is life without it?” In “Space City,” Cooley offers a bittersweet tale about his grandfather following his grandmother's death and how one learns to make it through the intangible and the unflinching realities of life. Hood remarked, “Its ruminations on love and loss, to me reveal the true nature and theme of the album, to love IS to feel pain. A blessing and a curse.”
It is fitting that the final words on the album are "It's great to be alive". The songs on this record illustrate the triumphant struggle it is to survive and thrive in this world. It’s not only a great record, but an important statement delivered honestly and passionately without any sugar coating or details spared. It’s a refinement, a honing, and a focusing of what you’ve always loved about them, what makes this band the greatest band in the world.
- Alex V. Cook