“That [southern, middle-class, black] voter, in my judgment, will be more likely to vote his economic interests than he will anything else. And that is the voter that I think through a fairly slow but very steady process, will go Republican.” ~ Lee Atwater, Republican Party strategist, 1981
I would not call myself, especially in the company of Ninebullets writers, a DBT expert or superfan. I resisted them for a while because the way a lot of people talked about them, I figured they would sound cliche. By the time I finally started listening to the songs instead of the people, a lot of those folks had already been turned off by new vocalists or more straightforward rock songs. It felt like I got to enjoy their back catalogue all to myself. I thought it was all impressive, but I was still partial to scattered songs more than any of their albums in full. This will probably change, because in the close listening I tried to do for this review, I’ve been so astonished by the details of this album that I need to go back and listen to everything again.
I hope I won’t sound like reviewers who’ve made a cliche of the southern rock band or the southern man. I hope I can emphasize how rare it is to have a sort-of major band that is always on the side of the working class. Who has that? We’re lucky to have a small handful of those at any given time. Bands so lyrically, musically, and ethically awesome that they can help balance the backwards narratives strategically fed to us. Russia has that and it’s Pussy Riot and they get sentenced for it and they’re in a situation where their music isn’t even the main point of their actions. I hope all the other bands in America that strive for that kind of awesomeness can get a degree of the exposure that DBT gets in the mainstream media. And we complain that they had a fucking female voice in their band for a few records? Fuck that!
So here we have their long-awaited stripped down record. Their return to the core of Hood and Cooley. It’s Essential Listening not because it finally gets back to two dudes, not merely because it’s a DBT album, but because these two dudes in particular have such a heft of integrity and respect for their listeners that they’ll keep helping us untangle The Swindle whether or not the media says they “plateaued” in 2006. There’s no plateau in the storytelling DBT is getting at–it’s all uphill, it can all be taken away by “fairly slow but very steady processes.” Hail DBT and the tethers they guard that keep the real tied to the abstract.
The lyrics to Mike Cooley’s “Made-Up English Oceans” sprint out of his mouth so fast it’s hard to catch them. That might be the idea, though, because it’s written from the point-of-view of Lee Atwater, long-drawling and vote-scheming advisor to Reagan and Bush I. Though Atwater spoke slowly, he deftly attempted to steer the Southern political conversation away from race and toward class. Race had become too concrete an issue, so Atwater led his party to the calmer and more abstract shores of economic interests. Of course that’s an impossible transition. Race and class are intertwined and at once very real and ridiculously abstract–but one is sure good at obscuring the other. It’s that failed transition, that fumbled conversation, that underlies the south that bore the Drive-By Truckers–a couple writers who deal with this shit through rock and roll. A lot of people don’t have rock and roll to help them answer questions like, How are you going to tell your neighbor you’re not racist while your truck boasts a “Nobama” bumper sticker? How are you going to explain your hard time getting work without thinking about all this new ethnically complex competition in the hiring pool? A lot of people are told that they can have the Bible, politicians, or Clearwater country music to answer those questions. But we all have more options. Give us a verse of Mike Cooley’s, describing Atwater’s southern strategy, to nail some real imagery to abstract manipulations:
once you grab them by their pride, their hearts are bound to follow / their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural / like gunless sheriffs caught on lonesome roads and live to tell it / how hard it is for meaner men without the lead to sell it
“Made-Up English Oceans” dovetails perfectly with Patterson Hood’s “The Part of Him,” which deals with integrity and relatability in elections:
his positions were preordained / to help conceal his vast distain / for anything lessened his appeal
But DBT’s never been a band to succumb to much cynicism, even while they’re singing about the most cynical bastards on the planet. This is a gorgeous album. On the first half of the album, their guitars are as sharp as The Stones on Sticky Fingers. On the back half, they’re as wistfully toned as if they were backing Neko Case. Their stories as character-driven and sensory as they’ve always been. This is a goddamned family band, after all. Their best songs flesh out those fluxing images of working class families and what they find themselves able and unable to do economically, romantically, parentally, mortally.