Review Summary: Let me know son, when you've had enough
In 2016, I reviewed American Band
through the lens of the political turmoil facing the United States at that moment in history. Even amid the highly contentious election between Donald John Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton – where issues like corruption, racism, police brutality, and gun control were debated at length – I was still able to write about the hellish scenario with a hopeful slant. I imagined a future where my children would write research papers in school referring to 2016 as a moment of national reckoning, and a subsequent turning point where sweeping changes were made in the name of humanity and equality. It’s a surreal feeling to be sitting here now, four years later, writing about those same issues only to find that we’ve plummeted even further into chaos. In these times, it’s difficult to find the silver lining.
Drive-By Truckers’ thirteenth album, The New OK
, comes just three days after the commander in chief dictatorially hijacked the first presidential debates while calling upon white supremacy groups to wait in the wings, and mere hours after learning that he’s now contracted the potentially deadly COVID-19. Outside my window, racial injustice protests – mostly peaceful, some unfortunately violent – quake with an obvious rage and underlying pain. On the television, I see militarized police attacking citizens with tear gas and rubber pellets, shoving the elderly to the ground as blood trickles from their heads and into the street while an authoritarian figure poses for a photo op while holding up a Bible. If I could have gazed into a crystal ball in 2016 to see what I’m witnessing now, I might have spoken out even more vehemently against the nation’s apparent trajectory. Back then, however, I took certain things for granted. That racism has no place in any civilized society, for example. That any leader, no matter the success of failure of their tenure, would be subject to a peaceful transition of power at the end of his/her term. That in the face of a worldwide pandemic, we might help our neighbors and band together rather than questioning science, arguing over wearing masks, and concocting elaborate conspiracies concerning its legitimacy. Now, I feel like I can’t assume anything. Any crossroads that were previously foreshadowed we now find ourselves in the midst of, and I’m not going to lie – it scares the hell out of me.
Just as American Band
stamped its mark on 2016, The New OK
attaches itself to this nightmarish sequel in 2020. Drive-By Truckers have always resided comfortably left of center, but any semblance of shrouded meaning or symbolism has largely been cast aside at a time when clarity and frankness is needed. From the title track’s very onset, Drive-By Truckers enter with their traditional country-rock sound to convey, “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 merely setting the stage for the blackened depths to which The New OK
digs; law enforcement attacking their own (“The voices that were hired to protect, only betray you”), trojan horse dictatorship (“Fascism's knocking and Trump says ‘let them in’”), white supremacy (“the Klan and the Nazis are taking up the fight…flags of oppression are blocking out the light / dismantling the greatest generation's fight, we're moving into the perilous night”), and, uh, the end of the world as we know it (“The unraveling is happening, whole world coming apart right at the seams…You lost it all and you had everything”). If there is a noticeable tonal shift from American Band
to The Unraveling
to The New OK
, it’s a gradual waning of optimism. Like you and I, the Drive-By Truckers find themselves in sheer disbelief at the state of American unrest and, to a larger extent, global politics. The speed with which everything has unraveled since 2016 has left us all with whiplash, and the band is able to capture fear, anxiety, and uncertainty as it pertains to 2020 like few artists I’ve heard.
The album’s arrival a month before the election is a case of good timing. When I look back at my parents’ generation and all of the incredible protest albums that came out around the Vietnam War – or even the backlash against the Bush administration in the early 2000s – it saddens me a bit that we don’t have more high-profile artists speaking out about what’s occurring right now. In a society that has been inundated with politics – from social media to Sesame Street – the desire to escape mental/emotional stress is understandable, however a little too convenient. Not everyone has the luxury of cutting themselves off from the dangers of racism, sexism, and xenophobia – and it’s heartening to see Drive-By Truckers doing their part to address uncomfortable topics here. This won’t carry as much weight as the iconic and politically-motivated heavyweights of yesteryear, but The New OK
’s presence in a sparse field of competition (when it comes to country-rock that’s actually willing to subvert genre politics) immediately bolsters its standing. This probably isn’t something you’ll take to the streets of a BLM march, but it’s certainly one that you’ll protest to in heart and spirit – whether you’re working/schooling from your laptop, driving in your car, or writing an album review that you hope others will heed as a call to the urgency and peril of the next several months.
The point of The New OK
is that none of what’s happening around us is really OK; it’s almost farcical in title. Perhaps it’s a jab at our indifference, our willingness to accept things laying down without raising much of a fuss because it’s too much effort. It’s a wake-up call to those of us who are able to see the irony in the album’s name and how it conflicts with the panicked and desperate lyrics that exist at every turn. Our “new normal” is only what we allow it to be. Lincoln once said at the Lyceum address, in what many punk fans will know as the introduction to Titus Andronicus’ ‘A More Perfect Union’ from the classic album The Monitor
, “As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.” It’s tough to think of a more applicable adage for the modern day, and the spirit of that quote can be felt in The New OK
’s tenacious resistance. Optimism may be almost entirely gone, but there’s still a spark of hope that can be felt in Drive-By Truckers’ willingness to continue taking a stand. As long as that spirit of resistance remains alive – as long as we continue to aspire for what is decent and right – then we’ll never have to settle for fear and division as The New OK