Comfort In Survival?
The road trip is a well-worn cultural trope, but – perhaps because they have spent so many years eating up the miles on tour – you won’t want to miss Drive-By Truckers (DBT) take on it, enshrined in their 14th studio album: Welcome 2 Club XIII (3 June 2022; ATO Records).
The southern country/post-punk rock band have followed up their hard-hitting political triptych - American Band (2016), The Unraveling (2020), and The New OK (2020) – with an intensely intimate review of their own journey. “All our records are political to some extent, but after making three overtly political records in a row, we wanted to do something much more personal,” said DBT co-founder Patterson Hood, who contributed the key songs on the album.
Club XIII was the place where he and the other co-founder, Mike Cooley, began their careers, and the title track evokes those years of harsh lights and sometimes harsher receptions. The memory however is bittersweet, which reflects a large part of the whole album’s perspective.
It’s been a long journey and some friends have been lost along the way – listen to, for example, the stark lyrics of We Will Never Wake You Up in the Morning – as well as band members; but the current line-up includes: drummer Brad Morgan, multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez, bassist Matt Patton and David Barbe applying a perfectly-judged light touch on production.
There are some great tracks on this collection but it would be difficult to out-do the opener, The Driver, which harks back to Hood’s youth and conceptually holds the whole album together. This predominantly talking-blues number is a seven-minute epic that begins with the protagonist explaining that he “Used to go out driving, sometimes late into the night/ Twenty-one, fucking round and wasting gas/ Across the bridge to Sheffield.” He recalls, for example, a flaming dumpster, a brush with the KKK and a fatal accident, which he employs to impart a word of caution: “By all means, go tell your story/ But don't forget that you only have one sidе/ So parlay your inner-visions with the usual suspicions/ [and] when you're changing lanes and passing on the right/ Check your blind spot and signal your intent.”
In “Trying to make sense of the pieces of my life” Hood offers up a kind of a dreamscape for those who might find themselves wide awake in the early hours of the morning. If that happens to be you, beyond the lyrics, you’ll be well-accompanied by some great guitar - Cooley on his customised Baxendale and Hood on his Gibson SG - and powerfully atmospheric backing vocals.
The closer Wilder Days bookends the album appropriately as it recalls youth’s sense of invincibility, and contrasts it with laughter at life’s absurdity in the later years. Hood closes the road trip with the reflection: “As the sun gets dizzy watching us as we go spinning around/ There’s no comfort in survival, but it’s still the best option that I’ve found.”
Those countless miles on tour have provided Drive-By Truckers with a large chunk of the good and bad times that are chewed over on Welcome 2 Club XIII. Whether or not the album itself provides any ‘comfort in survival’ is a big question better left to each listener, but it is certainly an offering not to miss.