How have the Drive-By Truckers responded to the loss of Jason Isbell, up til early 2007 one of the band's three primary songwriters, and its ace guitarist? Better than anyone had cause to expect. With long-time studio contributor and pedal steel/guitarist John Neff finally pitching in full-time as Isbell's replacement, the band has released a sweeping and elegantly beautiful 19-track epic that ranks with the band's best.
Rather than trying to fake their way through the gaps once filled by Isbell's Stones-y swagger, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have chosen to play to their strengths—and to their places in life, as both of them are now family men at or approaching middle age—with a collection of songs that owe more to Haggard, Cash and George Jones than to anyone named Van Zant. Cooley checks in with a handful of his trademark narratives—brooding cautionary tales like "Self Destructive Zones," world-weary lamentations like "Lisa's Birthday." Cooley's stark monologues inevitably account for at least one of the two best tracks on any given DBT album, and his best songs on Creation's Dark stand out even among the highlights of his personal oeuvre.
Patterson Hood, meanwhile, touches base with his plaintive rasp on his favored themes—family dysfunction ("Daddy Needs a Drink," "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"), substance abuse ("You and Your Crystal Meth"). But his touch is lighter here—his tracks are largely slow- to mid-tempo, with more attention to craft and diminished lip service to southern rock bombast.
And craft is ultimately what sets this collection apart from most other DBT records. In terms of songwriting, there's nary a filler track to be found among the album's 19 selections, and the melodies are stronger than those on any Truckers outing to date. And the arrangements are equally stellar; whereas most DBT albums sound as if they were (mostly) hammered out in the throes of a beery pique, Creation's Dark sounds orchestrated—in the very best sense of the word.
But save the best for last: perhaps the real epiphany of Brighter Than Creation's Dark is the emergence of bassist Shonna Tucker—who is, ironically and perhaps fittingly, Isbell's ex-wife—as both singer and songwriter. Her hat-trick contribution showcases a more-than-capable songwriter with the voice of a classic country chanteuse; it raises the question of why the DBT boys' club has kept Tucker tethered to a bass amp, voiceless, since 2003. Maybe it took the loss of Isbell's estimable talents to galvanize DBT into letting this hidden gem finally shine through.