When alt-country band Old 97's released their fifth album Fight Songs (1999), some critics expressed relief that the band had finally matured. I don't dispute that the lyrics got a little more nuanced and the instrumentation more refined, but the band certainly also got a whole lot more boring. I'm not saying the same goes for Drive-By Truckers on their newest release, but it's a similar conundrum.
The Big To-Do is a salute to blue collar life in a recession, with the nostalgic and wistful flavor of Springsteen or Mellencamp. The themes are easy to relate to, but have lost the weird, boldly uncomfortable details that make DBT songs strong.
Only a few songs display elements of albums past. "The Wig He Made Her Wear" tells the story of a woman who kills her preacher husband after years of debasement. And in "The Flying Wallendas," a family falls from the sky and performs on trapeze and high wires. Those kind of songs seemed par for the course on previous albums. On The Big To-Do they're exceptions, replaced by stories of people working for low wages while box stores eat up the only culture left in town. True, but generic. Good stories, but not great.