Metacritic reviews of English Oceans, the new album by the Drive-By Truckers, it becomes quickly apparent that nearly everyone likes these guys, and wants them to succeed. You read phrases like "typically strong," "they’ve never made a bad or even a mediocre album in their two decades," and "it’d be a real surprise if they ever put out a bad batch of songs." Appropriately, most of the reviews start from the assumption that DBT is a great band, one that deserves to be included in any conversation, debate or argument about the best American bands of the rock era. And even though I came to the Truckers really late (not until 2010, and thank you again JDG), I fully endorse that notion.
So when a new album comes out, the first thing that goes through my mind is "well, I hope this isn't the first bad one." Once that initial anxiety is past, the question becomes where to place the new LP into the band's entire body of work. It's still too early to answer that question definitively, but it's probably safe to say that this isn't the band's best album - because as good as it is, it's going to be really tough for them to match Decoration Day and Brighter than Creation's Dark, both of which benefited from the work of a third songwriter (Jason Isbell on the former, Shonna Tucker on the latter) who was contributing first-rate songs to those penned by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
Having dispensed with that, I'm quite comfortable saying that English Oceans is an excellent album. I'm comfortable saying that it may be their most consistent album since Decoration Day. And I'm absolutely thrilled to say that the new album represents an absolute triumph for Mike Cooley, who - notwithstanding his many great contributions to the band over the years - has more often than not played second fiddle to Patterson Hood, if only because Hood is a much more prolific writer. There's no doubting that Hood remains the band's auteur - the one most responsible for what DBT is all about, their approach to songwriting and their world view. But over time, it's likely that English Oceans will come to be known as "the Cooley album" - he wrote 6 of the song's 13 songs, and in what I believe may be a first, sings one of Hood's.
And make no bones about it - this is clearly the strongest set of songs from start to finish that Cooley has ever contributed to a DBT album. There are two classic rockers that I can't wait to hear played live (they'll be in Sacramento on April 25, and I'll be there) - "Shit Shots Count," and "Hearing Jimmy Loud"; there are songs with a lyrical depth that Cooley has rarely approached in the past ("Made Up English Oceans" and Primer Coat"), and there's the boozy, bluesy "Natural Light, " which wouldn't have sounded out of place on the setlists of Johnny Cash or even Elvis Presley.
In interviews, it's readily obvious that Hood is delighted with what his longtime partner has come up with, and it's not as if he's come up with a bunch of losers himself. The standouts are "The Part of Him," which could be about any number of politicians from the past or present ("His integrity was phoning in, totally Nixonian") and "Grand Canyon," which even with Cooley's triumphs is probably the best song on the entire album - a sprawling epic that demonstrates how easily the band is able to transcend its "alternative country/southern rock roots" (thank you, Wikipedia).
Two decades in. Jason Isbell is gone, Shonna Tucker and John Neff are gone. Drummer extraordinaire Brad Morgan and keyboardist/third guitarist Jay Gonzalez are still around. But it's never been clearer than on English Oceans that Drive-By Truckers belong to Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Here's hoping that they have another decade or two in them.