All great streaks must come to an end. Like Cal Ripken finally sitting out a game, Athens, Georgia’s purveyors of true Southern rock have taken a graceful step back and released a record that will not resonate the way their previous three did. Starting with Southern Rock Opera, then Decoration Day and finally The Dirty South, the Drive-By Truckers created a world of music and southern mythology that few of their contemporaries will ever come close to. With A Blessing and a Curse, they’ve chosen a new approach, foregoing the epic storytelling and intense pre-recording scrutiny in favor of a more stream-of-consciousness approach, writing the bulk of the material in the studio.
The process yielded a number of tunes that wouldn’t seem out of place on country crossover radio, though even the honkytonk grooves are occasionally accompanied by spit-and-vinegar lyrics. Tracks like Mike Cooley’s ‘Gravity’s Gone’ are as down and dirty as the best of DBT. Jason Isbell, who again only contributes a pair of tunes to the record, is still the strongest of the group’s three vocalists, and while he scores what could be the band’s best shot at a hit with ‘Easy On Yourself’, his brief contributions only serve as a teaser for the solo album that was purportedly shelved in favor of this effort. Patterson Hood does his part too, contributing the record’s most upbeat song, a scathing tale of Southern life called ‘Aftermath USA’.
Even with all those high points, it still seems like they were a bit too forgiving when it came to song selection. As anyone who has ever seen the Truckers can attest, Hood’s impromptu dialogues and anecdotes are key to the band’s appeal. On the record-closing ‘A World of Pain’, Hood tries to re-create his conversational vibe with lyrics spoken in his slow, comfortable drawl. Sadly, the track comes across as a little too preachy, replacing his inspired soliloquies with an overt “seize the day”-style delivery. “It’s nice to be alive,” are the final lyrics on A Blessing and a Curse, and while it’s great to see a hard working band getting the joy they deserve out of life, it’s clear that the band thrives more in harder times.