Music News & Reviews

Music: Mike Cooley’s songwriting takes center stage with Drive-By Truckers

Lee Atwater begat Karl Rove, which is to say the biggest of the modern political consultants got his game from the guy who re-invented the game. Atwater, who died in 1991, worked in Ronald Reagan’s White House and managed George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. If there’s a trick in play today, it’s likely because Atwater invented it and worked it to perfection.

Last year, Mike Cooley, co-founder, co-guitarist, co-songwriter and co-singer of the Drive-By Truckers, was considering the gears of the machine, and that led him to Atwater, the subject of “Made Up English Oceans,” the de facto title track of Truckers’ 12th studio album “English Oceans.”

“Once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow,” Cooley sings. Votes follow hearts. Power and profit follow the votes. Whether the consequences are good, bad, or inevitable is for others to debate. Cooley’s interest – and he’s pretty sure Atwater’s, too – is the way the game is played.

“For him, I think it came totally naturally,” Cooley said recently by phone before a show in Milwaukee. “If you understand human nature well enough, you can make yourself valuable to other people.”

Cooley too understands human nature. And for those rightly believing the Drive-By Truckers, who play Ace of Spades on Friday, belong in any conversation about greatest 21st century American rock bands, Cooley is key.

Since the band’s breakthrough third album, 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera,” co-everything Patterson Hood has been the prolific face of the Truckers, unspooling narratives that wrench the heart, haunt the soul or rock the body. Hood brings a Springsteen-like passion to the job, as if he has no choice but to make music or die.

Cooley is more Keith Richards, all spit and swaggering guitar riffs. Lyrically, he crafts perfect little hard-earned aphorisms like “Rock ’n’ roll means well but it can’t help telling young boys lies,” or “I used to hate the fool in me, but only in the morning; now I tolerate him all day long.”

There was a three-record period after “Southern Rock Opera” when Jason Isbell joined the group and the Truckers shifted into a gear that no one else had. Those days are celebrated, especially as Isbell’s solo career grows, but those days were brief. Cooley and Hood – the Dimmer Twins, as their duo shows are billed – have always been the engine.

Cooley, however, didn’t have it last time out. “The Big To-Do” and “Go-Go Boots” were released 11 months apart in 2010 and 2011. There were 27 songs between them; Cooley wrote six, and even those were a fight to finish. He’d never filled the songbook, but in the crush of so much new material, he felt almost absent.

Two long tours later, the Truckers took some time off.

Hood wrote and released a solo record. Cooley set out and played some solo shows he turned into a live album. “I think it gave me some confidence to keep chasing ideas,” he said. Those ideas turned into songs and excitement.

“We weren’t going to book studio time until Cooley said he was ready,” Hood said. “He ended up booking the studio time himself.”

Cooley’s prominence shines (he wrote six of 13 tracks on this record), but Hood’s work isn’t anything to ignore. He turned a character from novelist Willy Vlautin’s latest book “The Free” into “Pauline Hawkins,” the story of a woman trying to wash away life’s grind with a moment of tenderness she insists will never be more than just that – a moment.

“Grand Canyon” is a moving tribute to Craig Lieske, a longtime member of the band’s touring operation who died of a heart attack last year. “The Part of Him” – a companion to Cooley’s “Made Up English Oceans” – details a corrupt politician whose job was “to tell the truth, but he never told the truth to me.”

“Neither one of us had heard each other’s song,” Cooley said, adding that both he and Hood wrote independently. “It didn’t really even occur to me until they were recorded how much of the same territory we’d covered.”

When “English Oceans” was released, the Truckers went on Conan O’Brien’s show and ripped into the album’s opening track, a Cooley number that tries to find some humanity in middle management. “Suburban four lanes move like blood through an old man’s dying heart,” he sings. Then again: “Friday-night rich is all you’re ever gonna be until the fight in you on Monday is gone.”

Much of his half of the record takes on aging. Hopefully with some grace. “Primer Coat” finds its protagonist “staring at his taillights gathering speed.”

In a first for a band that released its debut in 1998, Cooley even sang a song that Hood wrote, one Hood couldn’t quite get right in the studio. It’s called “ ’Til He’s Dead or Rises.”

The consequences weren’t as steep, but Cooley rose to the occasion with “English Oceans,” and the Truckers are better for it.

“I feel good about it,” Cooley said. “I was real happy to have a breakthrough and have a nice handful of new songs I felt strongly about, and the band played great.”