The Drive-by Truckers have been compartmentalizing as of late, their latest, Go Go Boots, rounding out a fascinating, if by its very nature, uneven formal experiment that began with last year’s The Big To Do. You could almost say that the division began with Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, its focus on the group’s softer side, its glistening acoustic country songs and folk ballads, its sheer sprawl prompting the band to move into more compact, straight-ahead rock territory for To Do. But the pendulum swings even further in one direction on Go Go Boots, an album that lead Trucker Patterson Hood has called their “R&B murder ballads” record.
Full disclosure: I think the epic-sized Brighter is the band’s best album, and the less dynamic Big To Do, while never anything less than a strong work, is also one of their least interesting. Go Go Boots? Well, it’s probably their best album title and the most iconic cover. Besides that, it’s their weirdest album, if only because it’s exactly what Hood promised it would be—soul and country ballads, and literally not one single rocker in the bunch. Its softer-side focus makes it something of a more out-there Brighter, I guess, but really, its emphasis on in-the-pocket action and hairpin grooves, at least on the more soul-oriented trucks, makes it feel like it’s almost more of a piece with their Bettye LaVette or Booker T. collaborations than any proper Truckers album.
The thing about splitting their interests among two albums, of course, is that fans are going to argue that the best songs from Go Go and The Big To Do could have been united into one really knockout Truckers album, and true enough. As they stand, both albums are a little inconsistent, and neither shows the full range of this band’s talents, but then, they were never supposed to. And Go Go Boots, I think, is both a much more even album than the one that came before it — though yeah, its 66-minute run time is excessive, and a couple of the more meandering numbers could have been shaved off — and also a more riveting formal statement. The Truckers have long been known as one of America’s best rock bands, and here’s an album that’s totally devoid of rock but still feels like prime DBT, albeit a DBT where rhythm players Brad Morgan and Shonna Tucker are allowed to shine just as much as the singing and songwriting team.
As far as that goes, the conceptual focus of this thing seems like it would make it a wheelhouse album for Tucker and Mike Cooley; she writes some pretty good soul ballads, and he rattles off AM country gold like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Actually, though, Tucker only wrote one for this album — a perfectly fine soul ballad called “Dancing Ricky” that isn’t quite as good as any of her Brighter numbers — and she also sings on one of the two Eddie Hinton covers.
Cooley, meanwhile, spins off the kind of sparkling country numbers he’s always been so good at, and, indeed, the temptation is to overlook these songs are just Cooley being Cooley, but there’s clearly a great deal of craft that goes into making these songs sound so effortless. “Cartoon Gold” is one of his most perfectly-written and funny songs ever, and “Pulaski” is a Southern short story that’s warm and tender and real. Both are new highlights in his canon, though, ironically enough, I think my favorite Cooley song from these two sibling albums is still the last record’s “Birthday Boy,” which might actually have fit better on Go Go Boots.
The big story, though, is that this is really Patterson Hood’s album; he dominates, both in number of songs and in creative restlessness, and most of it’s really good. He pens a couple of long-ish, groove-oriented songs that illuminate what he meant with his “R&B murder ballads” comment. “Used to be a Cop” is a terrific story-song that shows how refined his lyrics have become — it’s another one of his Southern man songs but really could be set anywhere — and the full-band performance is masterful in how it rides its groove and uses shifting dynamics and organic interplay to sustain momentum over its seven-minute duration. “Go Go Boots,” meanwhile, might be an even better story song, a true murder tale done up right with appropriately sinister religious imagery, a song that one imagines would have made Flannery O’Connor chuckle to herself.
Hood seems to be the one who most clearly wants this album to play out as the Truckers’ Weird Record, and not all of his songs are as good as those two, but I give the man props for kicking things off with a scratchy, almost lo-fi folk number called “I Do Believe” and ending with what’s basically a power ballad, a declaration of love and loyalty called “Mercy Buckets.” He’s pushing himself for this to be something more than just a batch of slow songs; he invests it with the same vision he’s brought to all their albums. The most surprising moment, actually, might be the second Eddie Hinton cover. Hood sings this one, called “Everybody Needs Love,” and it’s a knockout soul ballad, sounding like it really ought to be a hit single in the making, or perhaps the soundtrack to the trailer for a romantic comedy. The band sells it; in one sense it’s the most mainstream they’ve ever sounded, but in another, it’s one of the greatest testaments yet to how versatile they are, something this flawed but truly special record attests to in spades.