I've long praised Drive-By Truckers, who are one of America's two best bands. (The other being the Roots.) But I've been nervous about hearing their latest record, American Band, ever since word got out that it was going to address current events head-on. As frontman Patterson Hood puts it in the liner notes, "Our records have often attempted to tell some kind of story, sometimes current things veiled in some tale set in some other time period. This album is pretty much centered around contemporary issues. Tales of our time."
And while I still like American Band, its straining to be bluntly topical ends up having limitations. DBT's best songs have tackled racism, unemployment, inequality, mortality, murder, marriage, suicide, corrupt politicians, Southern identity, and even the phony feud between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. These guys are bright, articulate storytellers who connect the small, telling detail to larger societal issues. But American Band strips away the narrative distance these guys usually incorporate, and as a result too much of the album feels earnest rather than illuminating. For the first time in their great career, DBT are telling us what we know without really showing us fresh ways to think about what's going on around us.
At the center of my mixed feelings about American Band is "What It Means." Hood lets fly with a litany of the country's current ills, pinpointing the racial disharmony that's been rampant since Obama got elected. The killing of Trayvon Martin is connected to Ferguson, which is connected to so many other black murders. "Don’t look to me for answers," Hood sings near the end, "'cuz I don’t know what it means." This is a typical approach from artists -- survey the scene while being humble enough to admit you don't have any concrete solution -- but Drive-By Truckers have never pretended they have the answers. What they have been able to give us are characters: Whether based on real people or entirely fictional, the men and women we meet in a DBT album are folks we know. And it's through their struggles that we see ourselves; their humanity reminds us of our own.
As predictably stirring and moving as American Band can be, I find myself missing that slightly removed perspective. If you listen to "What It Means" and it gives you what you need to cope in our troubling times, that's great. Me, I nod along in agreement with everything Hood says. But agreement doesn't seem sufficient. At their best, DBT have also challenged and inspired. The spiritual exhaustion in "What It Means" and American Band is, perhaps, intentional. Lord knows a lot of us feel that way right now. In that sense, American Band is, indeed, a tale of our time.