Drive-By Truckers leader Patterson Hood wrote in a post on the band's website that 2007 "was supposed to be our year of taking it easy," but it doesn't seem to have worked out that way, and that's a good thing for everyone concerned. The songwriting bug seems to have bit the Drive-By Truckers sometime after the release of 2006's A Blessing and a Curse, and while that album was a bit short on top-shelf material (at least compared to the band's work sinceSouthern Rock Opera), Brighter Than Creation's Dark is a dazzling return to form, delivering some of their finest, most eclectic, and most mature music to date. The album's strength is a pleasant surprise given the departure of guitarist and tunesmith Jason Isbell, who had become one of the group's most interesting writers, but founding members Hood and Mike Cooley have risen to the occasion with some excellent new songs, and bassist Shonna Tucker (who's also Isbell's ex-wife) steps forward as a composer and lead vocalist on this set with three great songs about broken hearts and the stuff that follows in their wake. Opening with "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," a song by Hood sung from the perspective of a man who has just died and wonders what will become of his family, Brighter Than Creation's Dark presents 19 portraits of folks struggling to make sense of an increasingly chaotic world, ranging from an alcoholic father ("Daddy Needs a Drink") and a family man struggling to hold onto a little piece of the American dream ("The Righteous Path") to a middle-aged guy whose gotten a little too used to being lonely ("Bob") and an illegal gun dealer running short on options ("Checkout Time in Vegas"). While the Truckers are still a great full-tilt hard rock band, Brighter Than Creation's Dark finds them slowing down and turning down a bit more than usual, and in this case it works well for them -- the homey twang of "Lisa's Birthday" and "I'm Sorry Huston" gives new guitarist and pedal steel player John Neff a chance to shine, and the light acoustic arrangement of "Perfect Timing" fits the lyrical portrait of a cheerfully flawed man just fine. And "That Man I Shot" is a blazing, troubling masterpiece in which a soldier home from Iraq can't tear away the memory of a man he killed in combat ("That man I shot, I didn't know him/I was just doing my job, maybe so was he"). It's a tale of the most human consequences of war that's built from equal portions of anger, confusion, and compassion, and it's hard to imagine any other band pulling off its fusion of Southern-fried street smarts and guitar-fueled thunder. It's one of several brilliant moments on Brighter Than Creation's Dark, and less than three weeks into 2008 it's hard not to escape the feeling that with this disc we may already have the best album of the year.