In his liner notes to the Drive-By Truckers' eighth studio album, The Big To-Do, bandleader Patterson Hood uses running away to join the circus as a metaphor for a variety of hopes, dreams, and ambitions, adding "I never really was all that into the circus as a kid, but I sure was into the Rock Show, which was sort of The Circus for kids of my generation." There's plenty of truth to that line, but while running off to chase the Big Top usually means escaping the realities of adult responsibility, Hood and his bandmates have become all the more willing to deal with the home truths of just getting by as they've become more successful, and The Big To-Do may be their most intense look yet into the messy realities of life in post-millennial America. In The Big To-Do, the Truckers sing about people trying to make sense of a world that's seemingly turned against them -- a young boy whose father has abandoned the family ("Daddy Learned to Fly"), a man who has lost a bad job and is struggling to support his family ("This Fucking Job"), a wife confronting her unfaithful husband ("You Got Another"), an alcoholic who can barely remember the wreckage he's left behind ("The Fourth Night of My Drinking"), and a father trying to figure out what lessons he can pass along to his children ("Eyes Like Glue"). The Big To-Do is a subtle but genuine step forward from 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark, but while that album dug deep into the darker undercurrents of its songs, The Big To-Do resembles Bruce Springsteen's The River in that its stories of folks under punishing circumstances are married to music that tries to find some sort of grace and honor in the struggle without dulling the lyrical impact. And the Drive-By Truckers are one band good enough to make this conceit work -- "The Fourth Night of My Drinking" is a ravaged tale, but the melody builds some compassion for its doomed protagonist, and the anthemic "This Fucking Job" brings out the bravery in characters pushed to the wall but determined to get through. And just as Hood's songs are as painfully honest as any he's written, the two tales of broken hearts contributed by Shonna Tucker add another, equally powerful perspective to the album, and Mike Cooley contributes three absolute winners, including the album's bittersweet closing number "Eyes Like Glue." The Drive-By Truckers have been the best and smartest hard rock band in America for a while now, but with The Big To-Do they also confirm they're one of the bravest, and they've created a triumphant album out of songs in which folks are forced to look failure square in the eye.
The Big To-Do Review
by Mark Deming