Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2008)
I don't really have a favorite Truckers album. Many of their best stand-alone tracks were on earlier albums (most notably timeless anthems like "Sink Hole," "Let There Be Rock" and "Puttin' People On The Moon"), and several of those albums are easy contenders. But while Creation's Dark, their seventh album, is a bit too sprawling (it's a double album in vinyl-era parlance), I think it stands up well alongside their early triumphs while offering some interesting variety and its fair share of great tunes.
The band has always been well-served by two contrasting but complementary songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, like a modern day Lennon-McCartney. Hood tends towards majestic lyrical narratives and intriguing riffs, often stunning character studies; while they're clearly a "Southern band" (early work traced their love of Lynyrd Skynyrd), Hood puts the band's progressive and populist politics front and center. Cooley is a bit more of a traditionalist, musically locked in on Keith Richards-infused 12-bar blues and simple country licks, but he can still squeeze lyrical poignancy from his contributions.
The album is at the top of my list based in part on the opening track, a gut-punch of a ballad, gentle banjo picking over Hood's lyrics about a real-life friend of his, a local musician, who along with his wife and daughters was murdered by a serial killer. His friend is greeted at the pearly gates, wondering "is there vengeance up in heaven, or are those things left behind?" while down below "dolls and flowers at the storefront, everybody cried and cried." I'm not ashamed to say this song leaves me a blubbering mess every single goddamn time.
And while the rest is less somber, it's a more downbeat album than most, with a number of ballads, and several songs are straight-out country music rather than the usual twangy-but-rocking Americana (including some nifty contributions--particularly the lovely "I'm Sorry Huston"--by then-bassist Shona Tucker, who had been married to the band's one-time guitarist Jason Isbell). Not that they don't bring the rock this time around. Hood's "The Righteous Path" is another one of his fantastic populist tales of a man just scraping by ("more bills than money I can do the math, but I'm trying to stay focused on the righteous path"); and Cooley's "3 Dimes Down" is a perky Stonesy barn-burner. Elsewhere Hood offers the solid, jolting anti-war anthem "That Man I Shot" and the mid-tempo jangle of "The Home Front" (with a hook reminiscent of R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts").
As with most double albums, the album might have been more powerful with a few edits here and there, and maybe could've used another upbeat rocker or two, but it's still a fine testament to the songwriting power of this amazing band.
Here's a live take on "Two Daughters and a Wife"; bring a hankie: