This Time It’s Personal – Patterson Hood’s ‘Heat lightning Rumbles In The Distance’
Patterson Hood’s third solo outing ‘Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance’ is a world-weary stepping back from the full tilt of Drive-By Truckers, and a hat-tip towards a more old fashioned kind of country music with story songs of damaged people, their lives marred by having made the wrong matches and having taken the wrong paths seeking salvation, or at any rate relief, at the end of an empty bottle or in an adulterer’s bed at the end of an empty night while trying to blank out their own misery.
He puts the country into alt-country using the tropes of that traditional form to tell stories just like George or Merle might have done. He’s an assured storyteller and there’s a cast of characters here who bury their own happiness under a sense of duty to their drunk or otherwise dysfunctional spouses in a world where alcohol and tacit aggression are used to avoid exposing any tender part.
More than anything else though this record has a contrite confessional tone. For someone who tours relentlessly in any band there is inevitably a yearning for domestic contentment, an attachment to the romantic notion of fixing up the house and spending time with the family but these lofty aspirations almost invariably see themselves betrayed at every turn in the real world and this record never strays far from the theme of the seeming impossibility of contentment.
The record starts, like any new day, at 12.01, but we’re being given an undiluted taste of the purgatory to come as this is no bright new day, rather a drunken late night attempt to stave off the inevitable bitter taste of a relationship gone to the dogs. It’s almost like a slap in the face, warning us to sit up and pay attention to what’s to come. After that, it’s on to the mundanity of the musicians daily grind, twinned with the album’s closer and using what he knows best, the relentless absence of the touring musician ‘I’m always lonely but I’m never alone’, he paints a bleak picture of the casual way in which we hurt the ones we love.
The title track, with its lament for the passing of a domestic idyll balanced delicately by his tentative optimism speaks with an understated elegance of the difficulty of building a life with the ones you love in the midst of the chaos and emotional rubble that constantly encroaches upon us. Tucked away amidst the country shuffles the similarly brooding ‘(untold pretties)’ is a hauntingly honest account of one of the turning points of his own life, half spoken, half sung. On this, as on ‘Depression Era’ he dwells on the Methodism that failed both him and his grand-father, a faith that was never giving, or maybe forgiving, enough to allow any joy into life and which saddles its adherents with a secular burden of duty which is both difficult to comprehend and to fulfill.
With musicians from both Drive-By Truckers and Centro-matic / South San Gabriel contributing the record moves seamlessly between mid-tempo country workouts like ‘After The Damage’, muscular, malevolent brooders like ‘Betty Ford’ and the more atmospheric and musically developed ‘(untold pretties)’. If it loses its footing anywhere it is on the Kelly Hogan duet ‘Come Back Little Star’, which is a good enough song in its own right but seems oddly out of kilter with the rest of the material, lipstick red amongst the washed out browns and greys of the rest of the album.
As a solo record it chooses to go into territory that the band could never venture into, walking up Patterson Hood’s nerve endings and deep into his central nervous system and on whatever terms you choose for it, the record is a great success. Raw, poignant, relentlessly honest and beautifully written and played, this will be an album you’ll play over and again.