Following the back-to-back releases of The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots it’s been an unusually quiet period by all standards set by the Drive-By Truckers. Following the departure of bassist Shonna Tucker in 2011 and then guitarist John Neff the following December, band activity in 2012 and 2013 was relegated to solo releases from Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the rerelease of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ and a brief string of tour dates, both solo and as a five-piece band.
With 2013 belonging to former Trucker Jason Isbell any attempted output would have been folly. After paying homage to the soul of Muscle Shoals and covering Eddy Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love,” the band played more to the strength of Tucker’s writing than lashing out with their patented three-guitar attack.
When word came out in late 2013 the band would release English Oceans in March 2014, questions were raised. Hood, Cooley and Morgan made it clear they were continuing as a five-piece act, rounded out by Matt Patton (Dexateens) and Jay Gonzalez. But who would handle the songwriting?
Once English Oceans leaked just before Christmas 2013, any cause for concern was quickly put aside. Consisting of 13 songs, English Oceans opens with the one-two punch of “Shit Shots Count” and “When He’s Gone,” assuring the return of the band’s signature sound and trading writing duties equally between Hood and Cooley. And yet, once beyond these two songs, the album settles into an extended parlor session, affording the band much needed room to breath.
Given space, Hood and Cooley demonstrate a level of maturity that would have felt feigned on earlier releases. On the parental meditation “Primer Coat,” Cooley’s father-son relationship is far different than the one detailed on “One of These Days” (Pizza Deliverance). In the documentary, The Secret to a Happy Ending, Hood remarked he previously “only wrote about bad things.” As on his last two solo albums, Hood now favors ruminations (“Hanging On”), even if the tales they tell aren’t so positive. The up-tempo first single, “Pauline Hawkins,” — the last song to be written — is lyrically rote yet is the album’s most infectious track; the unhinged instrumental release of its delayed ending parallels the sexual politics of which Hood sings.
Gone is the the outright political vitriol of “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” replaced by the more subtle yet no less barbed attacks of the galloping “Made Up English Oceans” and “The Part of Him.” Having created enough characters to populate their own fictional Yoknapatawpha County, “When Walter Went Crazy” ranks among the band’s best Gothic sketches. Hood’s cinematic fascination appears on the album’s closing track, “Grand Canyon.” At first resembling “The Monument Valley” from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the memorial to former band friend, Craig Lieske, adds a sense of triumphant finality to the band’s storied past, one which has been marked by periods of three-release runs, highlighted by the tenures of Isbell and Tucker, respectively. A solid start to what one hopes is the band’s next phase, English Oceans finds Hood and Cooley a little older, wiser and a tad bittersweet.
Watch the video for “Made Up English Oceans” below.