The most frontward of frontpersons for the Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood is also the one most easily taken for granted. The gracious, heart-sleeved ringmaster of the band’s live performances, Hood trades in sincerity and emotional showmanship while his bandmates cultivate hipper niche fanbases. Longtime partner Mike Cooley gets to be the rogue, racking up points over on the right side of the stage (dubbed “Cooleyville” by fans) with devil-may-care attitude and darkly comic puns. Long-departed guitarist Jason Isbell sported an ear for literary detail and pop hooks. By the time of her recent departure, bassist Shonna Tucker had become the most natural vocalist for the band’s recent forays into southern soul. Of course, Hood himself hasn’t done enough to remind us lately that he’s more than just the default leader of the band, but a songwriter who can make you laugh through the tears and vice versa. Since the brilliant early ’00s trinity that spun together Southern mythology and real life — Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South — both Drive-By Truckers releases and Hood’s previous solo albums, Killers and Stars and Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs) have suffered from a too-prolific pen and a lack of quality control. As if to keep up with an uncommon release pace and to cover for his bandmates’ less-than-superhuman songwriting speed, he’s produced an awful lot of filler.
Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance suggests that Hood may just need to slow things down and focus a bit, because the man clearly still has it. He hasn’t put out this many consistently moving songs in one place since Decoration Day, and, similarly preoccupied with the intricacies of marriage, Heat Lightning plays like an unofficial sequel to his matrimony-minded contributions to that 2003 album. On the spoken word “(Untold Pretties)”, Hood drives home to his fiancee’s bed “just a few weeks shy of getting married, with the taste of an old high school sweetheart lingering on my lips and fingers,” a betrayal that wouldn’t sound unfamiliar to Decoration Day‘s “My Sweet Annette”, left at the altar for her best friend. “Better Off Without” follows up on “(Something’s Got to) Give Pretty Soon” with a similarly insistent riff and the titular something having long since given: “While she’s off to better things / Better off without me / I would only hold her down until she stopped fighting.”
But what makes Heat Lightning so satisfying is that Hood doesn’t simply linger on the crunchy dramatics of break-ups, but rather integrates them into a greater examination of marriage, responsibility, and family. He originally planned Heat Lightning to accompany an uncompleted, semi-autobiographical novel inspired by his 1992 divorce, band break-up, and subsequent suicidal depression, but he wisely decided to weave this era together with other, more bittersweet strands from his life. In fact, Hood introduces divorce as a foregone conclusion. By the time the tense bar crawl of opener “12:01” lands Hood’s drinker back home with an unloving wife, he already knows that “in the end, it’s evident it’s over.” Thus, later when she’s “sprawled out on the concrete in what you wore to the party” and he’s threatening to “drive you all the way to Betty Ford,” it’s really no surprise. What’s masterful here is that Hood finds equal, and intuitively related, drama in his current negotiations between being a family man and tireless touring musician (“Leaving Time”, the title track, “Fifteen Days [Leaving Time Again”]), in the legacy of his family (“Depression Era”), and in the deaths of friends (“Come Back Little Star” and “Better Than the Truth”).
Heat Lightning is the most musically coherent album of Hood’s solo career, and it even sounds quite distinct from recent Drive-By Truckers releases, despite all of its current members contributing and longtime producer David Barbe co-producing and playing bass. Far from Hood’s main band’s three-guitar attack, it’s the chamber pop touches that hit hardest, like an ominous piano chord that signals hitting rock bottom on “Betty Ford” and Jacob Morris’s cello laying some extra gravitas over “Disappear”.
Best of all may be “Come Back Little Star”, a beautifully-sung ballad for the late Vic Chesnutt, co-written with duet partner Kelly Hogan. Originally planned for Hogan’s 2012 album I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, it nonetheless fits in comfortably among Hood’s tortured relationships and struggles on what he once called “the righteous path”. Chesnutt, a friend of Hood’s and Hogan’s, battled depression throughout his life, and his 2009 death is generally assumed to have been a suicide. “Come Back Little Star” is decidedly a tribute, not a cautionary tale, but it’s easy to imagine Hood (or the album’s possibly fictionalized Hood stand-in) once seeing the doomed Chesnutt as a kindred spirit. Hood’s a family man now, though, taking pleasure in his wife and children between tours — it’s far better to celebrate Chesnutt’s life than entertain a similar fate for himself.
Heat Lightning is the solo album as balancing act — one of its greatest accomplishments is that it gives equal attention to a destructive past without romanticizing it and a satisfying present without simplifying it. Break-ups are hard, but so are functional relationships. Hood has the sense of scale to grant both the weight they merit.