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Published: 2006/04/16
by Brian Gearing

A Blessing and a Curse – Drive By Truckers

New West Records 3016

The Drive-By Truckers have always built their rock and roll ethos on duality, whether it be that of “The Southern Thing,” their own whiskey-fueled indulgence, or rock itself. After spending three albums documenting and analyzing the heritage and the hate of their southern homeland, the Alabama-to-Georgia transplants turn the camera around on A Blessing and a Curse, by far the most personal Truckers record to date. Rather than Southern gothic epics of Hatfields and McCoys, campfire tales of bootleggers and good ol’ boy mafiosos, and mythologized Southern Rock Operas, the Truckers’ latest digs stacks of photos from a box at the back of a closet in a house that love has left dark, and searches for the spark to reignite a flame that is now choking on its own ashes.

While de facto frontman Patterson Hood’s songwriting has always been a touch more prolific than fellow guitarists Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell’s, past Truckers albums were still collective efforts, with each member contributing equally, if not to the credits, then at least to the albums’ themes. A Blessing and a Curse puts Hood dead center. Career success and the birth of his daughter seem to have shifted his focus from the dirt roads outside his door to the love inside, and though he finds plenty to grieve over within his walls, he manages to extract some faith from the darkness.

The walls of a house that love built begin to crumble as drummer Brad Morgan’s opening big rock thud shakes the foundations on “Feb 14,” but the rest of the band uses more sophisticated tools than their signature wrecking ball riot. Hood’s love of Big Star gives the song a gentleness that has more in common with the ethereal neo-Southernness of My Morning Jacket than the raucous rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and as “flowers fly across the room” and “vases smash against the floor,” Hood walks softly around his valentine, eyeing the door but leaving his heart in the bedroom.

Traditionally the outlaw, Mike Cooley goes soft on “Gravity’s Gone,” a straight country tune that accepts the fall and wonders whether there really is a bottom at all. Jason Isbell’s “Easy on Yourself” is the album’s most straight-ahead rocker and takes stock of the mess he’s gotten into, beating himself up for falling in the first place and vowing to take one last stab at pulling himself out just as the cave-in begins.

Waking two days later to survey the wreckage on “Aftermath USA,” Hood delivers some of the best lines of his career while sparring with Isbell and Cooley over Stones riffs that suggest a young Patterson wandering into his father David’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios during the Sticky Fingers sessions and ripping off outtakes for use 30 years later. Scenting the “smell of musk and deception” while stepping over “beer bottles in the kitchen,” “broken glass on the floor,” “crystal meth in the bathtub” and “blood splattered in the sink” Hood realizes that “it’s all worse than we think,” but even after the finality of “Goodbye,” he finds hope in the end.

Judging by most of the album, it seems clear enough that the blessing and curse is love, but the title track, built around Shonna Tucker’s stalking bass line and Hood’s high-minded philosophizing, suggests a larger story of life and how to live it. If there’s a meaning to it all, though, the closer, “A World of Hurt,” defines it in the same terms as the rest of the album. Isbell’s pleading ballad, “Daylight,” and Cooley’s country elegy, “Space City,” define the album’s theme the same as Hood’s pedal steel-soaked closer: “to love is to feel pain.”

In the end, A Blessing and a Curse is about learning to accept that fact, even when it means losing sometimes. It might all be a bleak assessment if not for the hope that Hood finds in his “World of Hurt,” which states in plain terms his newfound perspective on love and life. And while he’d just as readily admit that that’s a seriously clichphrase, never mind the idea, he’d also probably argue that that’s exactly what he’s talking about. Success has obviously eroded some of Hood’s bitterness, but years of struggle and experience have given him the confidence to lay out the truth, and the truth as he sees it right now is that “if you can put aside the sadness and hang on to every ounce of beauty upon youit’s a wonderful world.”

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