Listening Room: Drive-By Truckers - "Hell No, I Ain't Happy"

Drive-By Truckers and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining...who would have ever put that together?
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"Hell No, I Ain't Happy" from 2003's Decoration Day feels as raw as your hands after a day of pulling weeds from around the oak trees in the middle of June when it's usually 95 degrees or hotter.  

The tune hooks you in immediately with a sound drenched in sweaty, gritty set guitar chords that rumble underneath Hood's vocals which go from desperate to piercing in fast succession. On a side note, this is one of the best elements of Drive-By Truckers - the ability to mix three guitar parts which aren't necessarily playing things differently but not have it sound layered. In fact, it doesn't sound layered as much as it sounds ambient or full. Each guitar part - Hood's strumming, Cooley's accented rhythm, and Jason Isbell's tonal lead work all blend like the ingredients in salsa. One is for flavor, one is for texture, and one is for the heat.

The lyrics, written by front man Patterson Hood, comes off like the insomniac ramblings of a road weary musician who loves what he does, but not what it does to him. Being in a different city every night and day, starved for sleep, attention, good food, and any sense of normalcy has brought him to a new level of insanity. It's similar to what Stanley Kubrick's vision of Jack Torrence was from Stephen King's "The Shining."  What Kubrick knew was that the real horror in that story was not in ghosts or spirits but in Torrence himself. It's his own devices that drove him completely over the edge.

In "Hell No," we open with the overall statement about how it feels to finally "make it" as a band (make it as in finally get recognized enough to make a living at it). Most people think you came out of nowhere when you know the truth. It's taken most of your life ("...overnight sensation after 25 years") and, on some level, that pisses you off. Just like Jack Torrence, you know you are a responsible person. Sure you've had your ups and downs, but who hasn't?

Hood uses the second verse for lines from the window of the van or bus - a staple of every touring band. It's the only home most bands know and it's a catch 22: you hate being stuck in that thing all of the time but if you aren't there, you'd be home not doing this music thing. So there you are, enjoying the expanded schedule success brings and you wonder if you'll ever be allowed to leave your self-made prison at the Overlook Hotel. You would long for home but the truth is you don't have one - besides the aforementioned van or bus - you just have a mailbox and hopefully someone to hold on to your stuff until you are in town for a day or so to get it. It's that cycle that feeds the growing disassociation with the rest of the real world.

The bridge and the last verse are the "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" part of the parallel. Like Jack Torrence, our POV here doesn’t know how long he’s been at this, where he is, or really what he is any longer. He’s then given to violence when he sings: “One night in Kansas City, we thought about killing a man.” And the coup de gras to a fleeting memory of what’s back home:

And I keep it all together for the sake of the kids
Got your fine-ass self on the back of my lids
Hell no, I ain’t happy”

By the end of the song the protagonist finally gets what he wants, and it has destroyed him... slowly. Such is the duality of being in a band like Drive-By Truckers to paraphrase a line from one of their other tunes.