On the surface, there’s no logical explanation why someone from the “Godless North” such as me would have an infatuation with a band such as Drive-By Truckers. After all, it’s not as though I can truly appreciate the band’s porch-side confessionals on the hardships of Southern life, much less relate to them. But I often find myself mentioning it when discussing consistently great bands, in spite of the curious expressions that follow. With that in mind, I suppose I should thank the band members for the new direction they’ve taken on their seventh album, A Blessing and a Curse. Thematically expanded beyond a regional context, it may be just universal enough for me to enjoy without suffering any sideways glances.
Right out of the gate, with opener “Feb. 14th,” we see that the Truckers are ready to explore new avenues. It retains traces of the Southern twang that they’ve built a career on, but it’s beefed up by the kind of guitar hooks that wouldn’t seem out of place in most arena rock. There’s also nothing South-centric about the lover’s angst Paterson Hood displays with lines such as “I’d rather be alone/ take your chocolates and go home/ be my valentine.” It’s a theme that pervades much of the album. Its title refers to the act of opening up your heart to love and, thus, inviting the threat of pain. Or to say it another way, as Hood does on the closing track, “To love is to feel pain/ there just ain’t no way around it.”
If there’s a weakness in the album, it’s the singularity of the songwriting. Drive-By Truckers has benefited by having three frontmen, and the diversity this brings to its catalog. It’s somewhat of a disappointment, then, that A Blessing and A Curse contains the fewest number of tracks penned by Mike Cooley since 1999’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’. This isn’t a knock on Hood, whose songs make up much of the album, but it bears mentioning that Cooley’s two contributions are the albums’ highlights, especially the emotional gut-punching “Space City.” An acoustic ballad about his grandfather coping with the loss of his wife, the song should resonate with anyone who’s ever lost a loved one, especially with its frankness about the guilt that can be felt about any slights left unredeemed: “Sometimes the words I used were as hard as my fist/ she had the strength of a man and the heart of a child, I guess.”
Even with Cooley taking more of a backseat on this outing, though, A Blessing and a Curse is another solid outing from one of today’s most consistent groups. More than that, though, it showcases an artistic range that had been up to this point unexplored.
New West Web