Country music, much like rap, is a genre that relatively few people succeed in. For every Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, there are dozens of artistically-bankrupt, interchangeable, glorified pop stars in cowboy hats. But, as with rap, there is no substitute for a great country song.
Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers are far more rock ‘n’ roll than Merle Haggard, for example, but eight albums into their career, the group still embraces their country roots. It’s a dark brand of storytelling here, to be sure, but the songs on “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” maintain a desperate optimism in the face of a world gone wrong.
As they’ve done in the past, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley trade off songs on the album, but new to “Creation” is bassist Shonna Tucker’s first three songwriting contributions.
Hood has always been the group’s most prolific writer, and he again turns in a number of gems. Opener “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” rides a simple acoustic guitar rhythm and nuanced piano chords into a wistful mediation on family, life and loss. “The Righteous Path” could pass for vintage Tom Petty, while “Daddy Needs a Drink” might be Hood’s best song on the album. “Daddy needs a drink to deal with all the beauty,” he sings over a mournful slide guitar, “To deal with all the madness/To keep from blowing up.”
Tucker has a voice made for country music, and though her vocals fit the group’s sound well, she is not yet equal to her bandmates as a songwriter.
That said, “I’m Sorry Houston” and “The Purgatory Line” show promise, and her soft tone is a nice change of pace when paired with Hood and Cooley’s rugged delivery.
Cooley is the real star of the album. “Self Destruction Zones” is one of the few irreverent tracks, carrying a barroom melody about hippies and dragons over a steady drumbeat.
Other Cooley songs focus on a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells, from the arms dealer in “Check Out Time in Vegas” to the aloof title character in “Bob.” Cooley has the ability to say more about a character in one line than most people could in a book (Bob “always had more dogs than he had friends,” for example), and his songs are every bit as good as his lyrics.
Creation is a dark place, and the Drive-By Truckers make no attempt to pretend otherwise. But that’s only half the story. As Hood sings on “The Monument Valley,” “When the dust all settles and the story is told / History is made by the side of the road / By the men and women that can persevere/ And rage through the storm, no matter how severe.” If “Creation” is any indication, expect the band to persevere for some time.