That the Drive-By Truckers would be compared so widely to Lynyrd Skynyrd now is obvious. The band, fronted by Alabama expatriates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, burst into critical consciousness two years ago with their Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling two-CD concept record that translated the Skynyrd tragedy into rumination about the stigma of growing up Southern -- and, of course, rocked the three-guitar thing. With that album, the Truckers evoked their heroes to a dramatic effect.
Now, they've taken to transcending them on Decoration Day, the exhilarating follow-up to Southern Rock Opera. "And Lord knows I can't change'/Sounds better in the song/Than it does with hell to pay," Cooley sings on "Sounds Better in the Song," a weary breakup ballad. Ronnie Van Zant flew high, mostly rising above the ambiguity that plagues the Drive-By Truckers throughout the stirring, literate 64-minute course of this album. Ronnie at least knew where he stood. Decoration Day, in turn, is like a Faulkner novel for burned-out road hogs. In the Truckers' subtly rockin' post-Opera world, fathers let down sons, sons betray fathers, bankers destroy fathers' and sons' dreams, men lose women, husbands leave wives-to-be at the altar, brothers defend sisters, brothers and sisters deflower each other and the nights and days on the road grow longer -- and longer, and longer . . . The confessions are alarming, but the prescriptions are meek ("Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus," says the screw-up of a dad to his son from afar on "Outfit").
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It may all seem like prototypical redneck garbage, as if a mullet joke has to be cynically tacked on there somewhere. Hood, Cooley and third guitarist/songwriter Jason Isbell, though, infuse their narratives with a colloquial wisdom that mixes humor with piercing observation. The album lyrically is inspiring, so that when Cooley preaches "Rock 'n' roll means well/But it can't help telling young boys lies" (on "Marry Me." Amen!) or the scratchy-voiced Hood intones "Never homesick, ain't got no home" (on the blistering "Hell No, I Ain't Happy"), it all envelops the soul. The Drive-By Truckers' voice, in its wit and honesty, is wholly unique -- to brand it simply as Southern rock, as others have done, is lazy. Decoration Day feels like an awakening from an off-putting dream, the sun in a dense fog.