Times of personal upheaval are never fun to go through, but sometimes going through a crisis or two can yield some positive results, especially for an artist. This is particularly evident in rock music, which is often all about catharsis. Complacency is often a very negative influence, especially on artists who used to be known for their fiery, prolific personae. John Lennon’s happier records were always inconsistent, Elvis Costello’s first album after marrying Diana Krall was tepid at best, and don’t even get me started on Sir Paul McCartney. Raw emotion fuels the best music; what we want from our favorite artists is passion, and if it’s not there, it all becomes just a gigantic waste of time for everybody involved.
Patterson Hood is one passionate dude. The leader of the great Drive-By Truckers, who in recent years have established themselves as one of the finest rock bands America has to offer, Hood had his own dark period a few years ago, and he knew just what to do in order to get him out of the mental morass he was in. That idea was, to just buckle down and create. He didn’t care how good it would be, he just wanted to focus on his craft, to channel all his negative energy into it, and that’s just what he did. Back in March 2001, the Truckers had just completed the recording of their soon-to-be masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, a very stressful time for everybody involved, and Hood himself, while all the bickering with the band was going on, was going through a divorce. So over the course of two consecutive nights, Hood sat down in his dining room at home, and recorded a quiet, rough, raw collection of songs, consisting of a few old tunes, some new material, and a cover. He hastily threw the thing together, and sold CDs at solo shows over the next couple years (dubbing it a “work in progress”), which quickly became somewhat of a collectors’ item among fans of the Drive-By Truckers. Hood is a supremely talented songwriter, and New West Records knows that, and despite the raw sound of the album, dubbed Killers and Stars, they’ve decided to release the album as is, for everybody to experience.
As he says in his eloquent liner notes, “I was feeling pretty freaked out and isolated and this album was my therapy.” No kidding. Killers and Stars is a dark, desolate, monochrome snapshot of Hood at his most emotional, one full of shadows the color of deepest black. It’s the sound of a lonesome, frustrated songwriter trying to work out his problems through song, plucking away at his acoustic guitar in an empty house in the middle of the night, the only background noise being the creak of a rocking chair and a snoring dog.
Of course, with an album as hastily assembled as this was, it’s not all perfect, but it’s the imperfections that make Killers and Stars a winner. Hood’s craggy voice rasps like an old dustbowl singer on an ancient 78 RPM record, his phrasing taking on the quality of old traditional American folk songs. His best songs on the record are as good as anything he’s recorded with his band, most notably, the gritty, introspective “Rising Son”, which has Hood confronting his problems with women, singing, “All the women I have wronged waited round with glee/ For the big comeuppance that was waiting mad for me.” “The Assassin”, told from the point of view from a killer who kills the only one he’s ever loved, is a thinly-disguised fable about lost love, while “Fire” is even more blunt, as Hood sings, “People always seem to destroy what they love, them big ole brains steer us wrong when push comes to shove,” concluding self-deprecatingly, “You’ll know I’m coming by the smell.”
References to pop culture and Hood’s friends and family pepper the album. Hood meditates on American culture and its obsession with fame on the charming “Uncle Disney”, the strange “Belinda Carlisle Diet”, the pretty “Frances Farmer”, and “Cat Power”, Hood’s love letter to singer Chan Marshall, in which he muses about her notorious shyness: “I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to your plight/ But if you’re really so shy/ Why are you standing in the light?” Meanwhile, “Hobo” touches on his own family’s tendency toward the vagabond life, “Phil’s Transplant” eloquently describes the change in his friend following an organ transplant (“Even his handshake isn’t the same”), and “Old Timer’s Disease” is a beautiful little tribute to Hood’s World War II veteran grandfather.
Killers and Stars is by no means a great album, it’s merely good. The woefully self-indulgent “Belinda Carlisle’s Diet” is a complete waste of time, and the album’s sound is little more than demo quality, but it’s Hood’s desire to sort out his life through his craft, and his undeniable passion that ultimately makes it all worthwhile, and for now, it’s a fine little record to listen to in the time before the next Drive-By Truckers album comes around. This is Patterson Hood at his darkest, blemishes and all, and good for him for sharing the end result.