Drive-By Truckers have always been outspoken, telling a distinctly American story via craft, character and concept, all backed by sonic ambition and social conscience. Having reached their 20th anniversary this year, singer/songwriter/
So many of my favorite albums are “dark night of the soul” records: Neil Young agonizing over the drug-related deaths of two close friends and creating Tonight’s the Night (1975). Alex Chilton and Jim Dickinson creating Big Star’s Third (1978) from the ashes of what should have been one of the greatest success stories of its time. David Bowie holing up in Berlin with Brian Eno, staring down his isolation and creating Low (1977).
Preoccupations seems to have had a similarly angst-ridden beginning. The band, formerly known as Viet Cong, has dealt with dislocation, desolation and a crisis of faith in the thing that had propelled them in the first place. I know from experience that the transition from being a new band with a small regional following to suddenly playing stages all over the world can be a relentless whirlwind with a host of unexpected and unfortunate consequences. A name like “Viet Cong” might not resonate as particularly controversial back home, but when they started touring all over the world, they had to face up to the history associated with such a name — and they realized that there were implications far removed from their original intention. At the same time, renaming a suddenly successful band is a difficult and even painful situation. All of this takes money, time and focus away from the joyful making of music and adds a strain to the relationships that make up a band.
“No control no compensation/A jaded need for some astonishment/It’s a blunt humiliation/Not at risk of overconfident/All encompassing anxiety.”
Preoccupations kicks off the record with an ominous surge in “Anxiety,” setting a tone that builds and never lets up for the span of this exhilarating album. The things that first drew me to Viet Cong’s self-titled 2015 debut are still here, but this album shows vast growth and advancement from there, especially lyrically.
The one-word song titles reflect a laundry list of emotions poised on the brink of despair: “Monotony,” “Degraded,” “Forbidden,” “Fever.” Simple descriptions of their recent travails executed with minimalistic power. Yet the music surges us along, building to the kind of climactic release that enables all of the best rock & roll records to circumvent and rise above. It’s the perfect mixture of control and wild abandon, which I suspect is even greater live.
“Your favorite feeling was the ground falling out from beneath your feet.”
I often ponder us having a ‘better’ name to carry around — so I’m probably a little extra sympathetic to the origins of Preoccupations.
The album careens from peak to peak, but its centerpiece, “Memory,” is especially fine. On this track, the song ascends to a gorgeous peak before descending into an ambient soundscape that resolves like a fading memory itself, only to be throttled back into life with the surging “Degraded,” which conjures up a packed dance floor or punk rock dive bar bursting with youthful exuberance — before whiplashing into the foreboding “Sense.” And so it goes.
Once upon a time, I named a little project I was working on Drive-By Truckers. I think I was drunk at the time and probably hoped that a name such as that would help us land a gig at a small dive bar in Atlanta called The Star Bar. It certainly worked for that goal and my band was briefly a fixture there in the late 1990s. Now, twenty years later, I often ponder us having a “better” name to carry around — so I’m probably a little extra sympathetic to the origins of Preoccupations.
Having survived the period of unrest that birthed this album, here’s hoping that Preoccupations has an excellent tour to bask in the glory of what they’ve accomplished. Here’s hoping that I get to see them live, and here’s looking forward to where they take it all from here.