Credit: Danny Clinch
by Josh Hurst Music Rooted & Restless

The Drive-By Truckers | The New OK

January 14, 2021

The Truckers are no less biting than usual, but The New OK reflects the group’s discernible joy in making a ruckus amidst society’s grimness.

The Drive-By Truckers are no strangers to grandiose sociopolitical statements; in their catalog you’ll find a rock opera that navigates their identity as sons of the American South and plenty of songs that tangle with their country’s complicated legacy of racism, violence, and injustice. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the Truckers would eventually broadcast a front-lines report from the dark winter of Donald Trump’s America. That album, The Unraveling, was unveiled early in 2020, and stands as the bleakest, most nihilistic work in the band’s oeuvre. Of course, its grim, prophetic countenance looked ahead to a global pandemic that took the Truckers off the road, forcing them to do pretty much what the rest of us are doing: Work from home. The New OK, released a few months later, has some holdovers from The Unraveling sessions as well as a couple new songs that the band pieced together from separate studios. 

While this second missive feels updated in its specifics (you’ll hear references to the racial reckonings triggered by the death of George Floyd, for example), the worldview remains the same — which is to say, grim. And yet, this album is also quite a bit less oppressive, not because the Truckers have suddenly found the silver linings of life in Trump’s America but because they sound like they’re taking more joy in making a ruckus together. They lean harder into R&B than they have since Go-Go Boots, digging into simmering Muscle Shoals soul on “Tough to Let Go” and working up a full head of steam on the furious, fascist-baiting “The Perilous Night.” (No other band of their station is quite this good with groove; remember that time they played back-up for Bettye LaVette?) There are also some moments of gloriously greasy garage-rock din, first in the sludgy title song and finally in a raucous cover of Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” sung with venomous glee by Mike Cooley. Actually, the album’s only significant drawback is that Cooley, always a perfect foil for Patterson Hood, is relegated to only a single original here, though he certainly makes it count: “Sarah’s Flame” is a biting modern-day history, chronicling how the roads of neo-Naziism and Trump-style autocracy all run through the barrier-breaking degeneracy of Sarah Palin. It’s a breezy singalong, witheringly funny and maddeningly accurate in its diagnosis of American malaise. It’s emblematic of The New OK’s righteous indignation, its cathartic humor, and its raucous sense of fun.

Published as part of Album Roundup: Oct. – Dec. 2020 | Part 1.