A lot has come to pass in the three years since southern rockers Drive-By Truckers released their last album. No fewer than three solo albums have been spawned in that time, and with the departure of bassist Shona Tucker and steel guitarist John Neff along with the arrival of Tucker’s replacement Matt Patton, one is left to wonder the nature of the beast we’re being faced with on English Oceans.
Fortunately, there is enough of the classic Truckers sound present on the album to satisfy any fan, whilst still bringing plenty of new ideas to the table. First of all, the album is a purely collaborative effort between frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with songwriting duties split evenly between the two. Brad “The EZB” Morgan and Jay Gonzalez return on drums and keyboards respectively, and production is once again left in the very capable hands of David Barbe. The result is definitely more reminiscent of the straight-up rock sound of 2010’s The Big To-Do than the soulful country ballads of 2011’s Go-Go Boots, but there are certainly elements of both present here.
English Oceans starts off strong with ‘Shit Shots Count’, the first time Cooley has penned an opener in a decade. A driving country rock song that we’ve all come to expect from the band, it sets the tone for the album, with Cooley’s southern drawl as pure and striking as ever. Even the addition of horns towards the track’s conclusion, a rarity in the Truckers catalogue, works perfectly with the overall sound. ‘When He’s Gone’ and ‘Primer Coat’ follow in a similar vein, with the subject matter a dark and intriguing portrait of the characters that make up life in the southern United States. It certainly comforting to hear that, despite Neff’s departure, there has been no compromise in the power of their sound, with Gonzalez comfortably filling the void. ‘Pauline Hawkins’, the first single from the album, is a gloriously sprawling and surprisingly complex affair, from the soaring, almost psychedelic chorus to the beautiful, piano-lead outro that abruptly ends with a spectacularly raucous guitar duel.
One of the factors that really holds English Oceans together is that, as Hood and Cooley swap vocal duties on each track, there is a real sense of connectivity between the songs with each linked to at least one other in feel or message. This becomes obvious with two of the album’s finest, ‘Made Up English Oceans’ and ‘The Part Of Him’. The former is very atypical of the band, with a gently-floating organ line occupying the forefront accompanied by delicate yet hastily-fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Gonzalez’s presence can definitely be felt more on this album, adding a curious dynamic to many of the songs. The subject matter is fiercely political, which ties it in well with its successor. ‘The Part Of Him’ is without a doubt the album’s best song, with a fantastically folky electric guitar line and subtle use of banjo. Hood’s vocals are passionate and heartfelt as he sings of the futility of governments dominated by generations of indistinguishable politicians.
Half way through and English Oceans is showing no signs of letting up, as Cooley picks up the pace with the roaring ‘Hearing Jimmy Loud’ and ’Til He’s Dead Or Rises’, the latter curiously being the only time in their history that he has sung lead vocals on a song written by Hood. ‘Hanging On’ is a minimalistic and tender affair of little more than acoustic guitar and shimmering keys, as Hood ponders the sometimes overwhelming nature of life. Cooley’s response could not be more different with the almost jovial swagger of ‘Natural Light’. Loosely flowing, complete with honky tonk piano and drenched in analogue hum, the song has a truly authentic bar room feel that makes it a real treasure.
The band return to more familiar territory for the final three songs of the album, although the result is the sound of a group staying true to their roots as opposed to running out of ideas. For example, ‘When Walter Went Crazy’ is a classic example of the character-based songwriting which has become a staple of their music over the years, a chilling yet heart-wrenching tale complete with the Drive-By Truckers hallmarks of failing marriage, alcohol and murder. “Their friends could see it coming like yellow piss on snow/Like a house fire in the distance/Like a car crash in slow mo” offers Hood in one of the albums most poignant lines. ‘First Air Of Autumn’ is a solid and steady country number strongly reminiscent of Cooley’s songs on Go-Go Boots, particularly ‘Cartoon Gold’ and ‘Pulaski’. English Oceans concludes with the epic ‘Grand Canyon’, a rolling, dreamlike guitar anthem in touching tribute to Craig Lieske, a longtime member of the band’s touring family, who sadly passed away in early 2013. It’s a perfect ending to the album and rounds off proceedings beautifully, but not before David Barbe can add several loops over a pounding drum line to add one final experimental touch.
For those who criticised The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots for the singularity of their sound, they would certainly be struggling to do so with English Oceans. Eighteen years on and Drive-By Truckers are still a band who know how to mix it up. Bringing in new elements whilst keeping a sense of musical identity is no easy task, but Patterson, Cooley and co. have succeeded in this where so many others have failed, producing songs that easily measure up to some of their best. A valiant effort from one of, if not the greatest rock band of our time.