The Drive-By Truckers have got a lot of big ideas. Always did, even if Patterson Hood and his southern-rock cohorts initially smothered their smarts in tasteless humor, rolled around in muddied distortion, and rushed the results past you at punky speeds. Inevitably, though, the band soon sought a form grand enough to contain the breadth of their obsessions, and the 2001 two-disc Southern Rock Opera was just what it says — the cultural history of the modern American south, as refracted through the career of Lynyrd Skynyrd, with loud, messy guitars. Whew.
The new A Blessing and a Curse, however, would seem to tip-toe back a few inches into the personal. It's the sound of three men, each attempting to shake off an emotional hangover (and maybe the physical kind, too) and hold his life together. Mike Cooley, the gut-level absurdist, meets heartache with incredulity, proudly spitting in the face of degradation on "Gravity's Gone," resenting his inability to come to move beyond that pride on "Space City." At the opposite end is the rawer pain of Jason Isbell, who blasts unearned self-forgiveness on "Easy on Yourself" and hopes desperately that "I might become some brand new kinda guy" on "Daylight." Somewhere in the middle rests Patterson Hood.
The band's brain and conscience both, Hood has been the conceptual spark for the Truckers, and he nails the album's theme with the rollicking "Aftermath USA." Shaking off a spree-induced fog, he details the damages of who knows how many lost nights: the tub's full of crystal meth, social services are threatening to take the kids, the radio's still blasting shitty music from his totaled car, and meat's rotting in the freezer. As with his bandmates 'songs, there's little sense here that his situation is linked to a world outside his personal experience. For maybe the first time in the Truckers 'career, there's no politics, no economics, no history, no legends or celebrities poking their noses into the singers 'lives. This time, there's nowhere to hide.