English Oceans isn’t the Drive-By Truckers’ best album; it’s their only album. The Georgia-based band staked out a niche early in their careers, and 18 years later, they’re still standing that same ornery, tremulous ground. There’s something to be said about creative stagnation. Any single track from this newest album could’ve been slotted into any of their previous nine albums. And to be sure, 18 years is a long time to be doing the same thing over and over. But there’s also something to be said about consistency. Growth is a neutral factor, one that has proven to be the folly of many of the DBTs’ peers. The Hold Steady, for example, have struggled to maintain the quality of their output, or even resist self-parody, as they age their way toward irrelevance. But then again, the Drive-By Truckers have never really been relevant; their brand of boozy and literate bar rock is not one that bends itself to any contemporary cultural trends. Musically speaking, they play the kind of rock & roll that stopped being cool or commercially viable sometime before the advent of hair metal or grunge. And every year or two, they release a new album that sounds very much like the ones that preceded it. There have been no great fluctuations of quality over the course of their careers, which is the kind of thing that people who write about music can easily take for granted. After all, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?
That question pertains to both sides of any given Trucker review. I, for one, have no great insights into English Oceans. The Drive-By Truckers, on the other hand, seem not to suffer from repetition. English Oceans is predictably strong, rousing, heartfelt, thoughtful, belligerent, and empathetic. There are some details worth noting, such as personnel changes behind the scenes. Shonna Tucker, the Truckers’ bassist since 2003, left the band sometime between the last albums — The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots, recorded concurrently — and English Oceans. Her absence is noted only insomuch as there are no songs featuring her smoky, seductive voice. Were she simply stepping back from the center stage, as Tucker had on certain previous albums, one would be none the wiser. Tucker’s out-size presence is certainly missed, even if her absence isn’t particularly noticeable.
Maybe that says something about the clarity of the core members’ vision, or maybe it just means they have control issues. Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood have kept the band’s wheel steady for so long, despite the loss of several core members, that it’s almost unconscionable to think that they’ll make anything other than this thing they’ve made 10 times now. But if English Oceans is not particularly remarkable in the grand scheme of the DBTs’ back-catalog, it still manages to distinguish itself in small and not-so-significant ways. There are certain concessions toward beauty and delicacy made here that were never made before. “Pauline Hawkins” is almost unbearably tender, at least as much as a tale of physical agency can be. “Love is a cancer, and I am immune,” Hood sings at the start, but major piano chords and cozy, spacious production betray that statement. For maybe the first time in their careers, the Truckers have recorded a love song that actually sounds like a love song.
This turn toward the sentimental can be felt most strongly on “Grand Canyon,” the record’s eight-minute-long conclusion. An unhurried travelogue in the style of Led Zeppelin III, “Grand Canyon” rambles sweetly into oblivion. It reads, in turn, like a tribute to a lost love, a remembrance of things past, and a premature epitaph to the Drive-By Truckers themselves, though in actuality, the song commemorates Craig Lieske, a friend and tourmate of the band who died last year. “We rolled on in the darkness, to some city far away. Took our sorrows, pains, and anger, and we turned them into pay.” Brutally honest as that might read, it actually isn’t; the song is so lush and wet with emotion that such deprecating details are drowned beneath waves of romantic poetics and stoned philosophizing. Patterson Hood has tried this thing before, most famously with “World of Hurt.” But whereas that song toed the line between pathos and bathos, “Grand Canyon” is relaxed, at peace with its zen self.
Otherwise, English Oceans is more or less what you would expect, and that’s pretty much a good thing. Sun Kil Moon has been lauded recently for doing the same thing he’s done in obscurity for years. Maybe English Oceans will garner the Drive-By Truckers some similar acclaim. Or maybe not. Whereas Sun Kil Moon treats music like memoir or essay, the Drive-By Truckers have long occupied the realm of short fiction. Memoir is sexy, at least when it includes a certain exhibitionism. The Drive-By Truckers have little interest in such things. Theirs is an 18-year experiment in empathy, in putting themselves in the place of Others, in trawling through the muck of human experience to find sparks of connection and compassion. English Oceans isn’t the Truckers’ best record, it’s their only record. Let’s hope that nothing, short of death, stops them from making it again.