Drive-By Truckers: “Go-Go Boots” review

“Go-Go Boots” the latest album from Alabama natives Drive-By Truckers, offers none of the trappings associated with modern music: no auto-tuned vocals or synthesized beats, no guest rappers or emo-pleading. But in its very lack of state-of-the-art, juvenile pandering it may just be the perfect album for this time in history: a sometimes joyous, sometimes harrowing trip up side roads where friends and family are waiting, and down blind alleys where desire and rage boil over into murder and madness. The songs offer a morbid yet joyous meditation on the terrible choices humans face when hope dies, all the while keeping a small flame burning for the renewing grace of love.

Opening with  “I Do Believe,” a quick burst of sunshine pop that finds lead singer Patterson Hood conjuring the memory of a deceased relative, summer trips to the beach and soul music on the radio, the album moves quickly into the swamp blues of the title track, a pitch-perfect first chapter in a narrative that runs throughout the album: the murder of a small town pastor’s wife and the extramarital meanderings of her celebrity husband.

“Stained glass windows, Jesus looking down,

Organ playing music to the middle-aged crowd,

Wife’s in the ground, devil’s in his head,

Them go-go boots are underneath his bed.

It’s a small town and the word gets around.”

Narrated in a leering drawl by Hood and brought to life in shades of insinuating slide guitar and funeral drum codes, the song gains depth by focusing on the pastor’s son, a ne’er-do-well teenager who has questions about his mother’s untimely demise.

Based on an off-hand tale told by a Vietnam Vet, “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” drifts along hazily on a soothing bed of piano and muted guitar fills. As is the case with several other songs on this album, the pastoral musical setting is a set-up, a bit of honey to cover up the bitter truth of the lyrics: A troubled ex-Marine, having confiscated an automatic rifle from his even more troubled friend, finds himself eying drivers on a nearby interstate through the rifles scope.

“I’m telling ya’ Ray,

You gotta’ come take this gun back,

Cause the things that I’ve been shooting at,

Are getting all too real.”

The protagonists in theses songs avoid cliché, remaining stubbornly human and sympathetic, and all the more harrowing for it.

That spark of understanding lights up even the darkest corners of this album, like the disgraced former police officer stalking his ex-wife in “Used to be a Cop.” Having survived an abusive father and found “the only thing I was ever good at” upon entering the police academy, the man’s past slowly chokes all the promise from the future he once envisioned, as fits of nerves and uncontrolled anger slowly erode his career and marriage.

The most fully-realized track on the album, this dark heartbeat of a song conjures mid-70’s funk, gut-bucket blues and country-noir to form a wholly unique composite, one that the Truckers would do well to explore in the future.

Coming directly on the heels of “Used to be a Cop,”  “The Fireplace Poker” closes out the saga that began with “Go-Go Boots,” this time focusing on the murder itself, Again, the musical setting is deceptively laid back, even as the lyrics riff on “The Ballad of Lizzie Borden.”

“No one will ever know what she told him, or know what he told her,

Cause the reverend did his wife in,

15 whacks with the fireplace poker.”

While the tales of murder and unstrung psyches make up the heart of this album, they are surrounded with songs that tell a very different, yet interrelated story. Two covers of songs by the late, great soul artist Eddie Hinton, a troubled soul in his own right, give succor to the grief and outrage. “Everybody Needs Love” and “Where’s Eddie?,” the latter sung by bass player Shonna Tucker, give full reign to a side of the Truckers that’s been muted yet always lurking in the corners of their sound: full-blooded, down home Sweet Southern Soul.

Playing the eternally boyish raconteur to Hood’s lumbering straight man, guitarist Mike Cooley contributes three songs that offer various looks at the costs of dislocation, both physical and cultural. “Cartoon Gold” finds the Trucker’s guitarist “sitting in a bar in L.A. after dark with my sunglasses on,” while “Pulaski” follows the all-too predictable path of a young girl determined to leave her rural kin and slough off her small town roots for life in the big city. In lines worthy of the great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, Cooley scrawls the sorry epitaph for one more wasted life.

“Dreams they live and die here just like a stray dog,

On a dirt road somewhere in Tennessee.”

Family, entire generations in fact, take over the next to last song, “The Thanksgiving Filter.” A comic meditation on the ones we love and our patience to deal with their foibles, the song closes with what could well be a classic of holiday mirth and malice.

“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays,

Blessed be my family, 300 miles away.”

More so than past efforts, this is a Truckers album that rewards repeated listening. I’ll be the first to admit that I was less than overwhelmed on hearing this disc for the first time. But the richness, the underlying gravity of these songs reveal themselves slowly, like shoots of green breaking through a hard winters frost. Again, anyone looking for the immediate, spit-shined rush of modern pop will be lost, but those who still have an ear for subtlety and raw-boned song-craft will delight in the Truckers gifts for tracing the weird, brutal humor and unashamed beauty of America.

“Go-Go Boots” may not be the album me or a number of other Trucker fans were expecting; it may not even be the album we wanted. But it may just be, in these strange and terribly uncertain times, the album we needed.


2 Responses to “Drive-By Truckers: “Go-Go Boots” review”

  1. I’ve recently taken to reading reviews of music I’ve just acquired to see what other “informed” listeners think. I think we’re on the same page when it comes to this album, especially with regard to your comments on the benefits of repeated listening. I was taken with some songs from the start, but the album becomes a great listening experience around the third time through. Thanks for a thoughtful and literate take.

  2. yes sir, thank you

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