Whenever a band loses an essential member, things change, and not always in a good way. R.E.M., for example, hasn't put out a classic record since Bill Berry left 10 years ago. And he was the drummer. When singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers last year, it left open the possibility that the band would struggle to regain its footing. The band's first post-Isbell album not only shows the Truckers have depth to spare, but have risen to the occasion with a record that is richly drawn and executed.
Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West) is a departure from the crunchy British-rock sound that has defined the Truckers. It's darker, more muted and melancholy. Patterson Hood, the band's chief singer and songwriter, says the band's muse was inspired by a tour last summer when the band played "Unplugged"-style. "It's an introverted record," Hood says. "A lot of our records more or less hit you over the head. On this one, we bring you into our dark and dirty room, and lock the door."
Isbell's departure has been attributed to the divorce he went through with bassist Shonna Tucker. Hood says the band is relieved the drama has played out. "We spend a lot of time together and when we're not getting along, it really sucks," he says. "There's a real good chemistry with the band now."
While the Truckers' new album may be something of a sonic departure, it is still rooted in the observational songwriting of Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley. These are songs that make you listen closely, that draw you into the storytelling and the imagery and the moods evoked by the music.
The band member who really steps it up is Tucker. Her Alabama twang perfectly complements Hood when she joins him on backup harmonies. And for the first time since she joined the band in 2003, Tucker contributes and sings three of her songs, including the haunting "The Purgatory Line." She has always written songs, but never presented them to the Truckers for consideration. "With this band, I was always pretty much the bass player," Tucker says. "It was a big transition, to write and sing. But it was time for me to step up and do it."
At the core of the album is Hood's "The Righteous Path," the story of a man who tries to stay true to himself even as he rises to a comfortable middle-class life with his three kids and satellite television and a boat in the back yard that hasn't seen water in years.
The record is chock-full of such vividly drawn characters – like the namesake of Cooley's "Bob" that all Southerners will surely recognize from their hometowns – and every song is almost like listening to a Flannery O'Connor short story set to a rock 'n' roll backbeat.
With the loss of Isbell, the band has added two new members. Guitarist John Neff puts a sweetly sad pedal steel on many of the songs. And more notably, legendary R&B keyboardist Spooner Oldham has joined up with the Truckers. Oldham played organ on Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." He also played on Wilson Picket's "Mustang Sally" and most of Aretha Franklin's early hits.
Hood has known Oldham his entire life – his father, David Hood, was the bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and also played on those classics. When the Truckers recorded the Grammy-nominated The Scene of the Crime (Anti-), backing up soul singer Bettye LaVette last year, they asked Oldham to play on the session. "In the course of making that record, we decided Spooner was one of us," Hood says.
The album has a loose, prime-Stones feel and that's because it was recorded quickly and usually in first takes. The band recorded 17 songs in 10 days, then added two others in August after coming in from the road. "There's a real good chemistry with the band," Hood says. "It's the easiest record we've ever made."
And quite possibly the best.