When the Drive-By Truckers kept us waiting three years for January’s The Unraveling, it was the longest gap yet between albums in their 20-plus year career. Now, just nine months later, they’re back with The New OK. This surprise new record, announced just two days before its release, features a number of songs recorded in the same sessions that produced its predecessor. But this is no leftovers collection – the record has been rounded out with impassioned pleas written as a storm of protest and pandemic has engulfed America in the past few months. It stands as a companion to The Unraveling for sure – even including what could have been the title track of the previous record – but is designed as an album in its own right, and one that the band say they want to offer a promise of hope amid what seem like very dark days.
The themes they tackle have been familiar since the sharp turn of 2016’s American Band, in which the Truckers shifted to the fore the social commentary which has underwritten their entire careers to date. They tackled head-on issues they felt were too pressing to ignore as Donald Trump emerged on to the political scene – at first as a punch line but then as an increasingly powerful force within the Republican Party. Race, extremism, social justice – issues which get to the core of America’s fabric are battles which have moved from the verbal to real under Trump’s presidency, fought out in sometimes violent protests across the nation. Who would expect a band like the Truckers to stay silent at times like these? Kept off the road by the pandemic, they have instead channeled their energies and their frustrations into The New OK.
If, as Patterson Hood says, this is intended as the brighter, more optimistic companion, to The Unraveling, you might have to dig deep to find it. Hood’s anger at the turmoil in America pours out on the title track as he sings: “Smashing medics and the once-free press/It gets bloody and it gets messy/Goons with guns coming out to play/It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA/It’s the new OK”. ‘The Perilous Night’, first released in 2017 as an assault on America’s demise, sits comfortably here alongside the likes of ‘The Unraveling’ – on which bassist Matt Patton takes to the mic to sing “Something’s gonna happen when you pull that string/About to take the stitching off of everything/The unraveling is happening” – and a raucous cover of the Ramones’ ’The KKK Took My Baby Away’. Hood contributed the bulk of the songs but there is space for ‘Sarah’s Flame’, instantly recognisable as coming from the pen of Mike Cooley as he turns his focus on Sarah Palin’s role in the rise of Trump with a laid-back groove and razor-sharp wit.
‘Watching The Orange Clouds’ was another number Hood wrote this summer as his adopted home of Portland burned during protests. “Sure wish I could get some sleep/Just didn’t realise this bottom is so damned deep/Hoping one day we’ll rise and move on to some better place,” he sings. If this is the more optimistic tone Hood promised, it might feel a little thin given the wealth of righteous anger is stands alongside. But hope comes in different forms, and as long as the fight is being fought, the flame burns bright.