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Life before death 

Drive-By Truckers come down to earth

These days, Drive-By Truckers sound mortal. Gone are the larger-than-life conceptual heroics of Southern Rock Opera, the band's famed tragedy about Southern legend Lynyrd Skynyrd; and the breezy, radio-ready rockers that peppered its last album, 2006's A Blessing and a Curse. What's left is Brighter than Creation's Dark, a new album that fulfills its title with 19 songs about the human condition.

Brighter than Creation's Dark opens with "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," a countryish ballad where Patterson Hood sings of a dead man looking down on his loved ones, reeling in shock from the news of his passing. He asks, "Was it all a dream?" Hood has a knack for killer titles: Among the best here is "Daddy Needs a Drink" and "That Man I Shot," the latter a raging electric-guitar storm.

Despite being the Athens band's usual frontman, Hood isn't the only Drive-By Trucker who contributes songs. Bassist Shonna Tucker writes three numbers, including "The Purgatory Line," a mystical, echoing ballad reminiscent of Stevie Nicks. With seven credits, guitarist Mike Cooley has nearly as many songs on Brighter than Creation's Dark as Hood's nine. One of Cooley's standouts include "You and Your Crystal Meth," a stark, accusatory number. "You've become such a mess/You and your crystal meth/Lost your family and your truck/I used to love you now you suck," he sings over bare-bones piano.

With three voices telling dark stories of varying quality, Brighter than Creation's Dark sometimes feels like a compilation of various artists, not a band album. It takes a few listens to draw the connections between the songs. For example, Hood's "That Man I Shot" is immediately followed by Tucker's "The Purgatory Line," where she sings about a hellish loneliness and feelings of abandonment. Brighter than Creation's Dark isn't a concept album, but its collection of Southern gothic has a strange, satisfying completeness to it.

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