Patterson Hood excels at crafting lyrics about southern despair and human fallacy. His third solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, is a gripping listen, full of the desperate and downtrodden characters he’s so adept at understanding. Much like his work with the Drive-By Truckers, the songs here are full of hard times, hard liquor and hard lessons; the titular weather occurrence is just about the least dramatic thing that happens during this loose 12-song narrative.
Hood’s voice is front and center throughout, which is appropriate for the intimate subject matter. The agitated guitars and raucous rhythms of the Truckers are replaced by complimentary acoustic guitar, subdued drums, piano, banjo, and the like. The tempo occasionally surges, but not in a reckless way – “Better Than the Truth,” for instance, is a quick and measured country shuffle, and the catchy “Leavin’ Time” lopes along at a pleasing pace. The mildly fed-up rock of “Better Off Without” is about as loud as it gets.
Riveting album-opener “12:01” places the listener firmly in the seatbelt of the protagonist, as haunting violin and ghostly organ help conjure images of a man waiting for a liquor store to open. Eventually, the last of the bottle winds up smashed against a wall, the circumstances of which are relayed by Hood with stirring certainty on “Disappear.” The organic instrumentation leaves more room for the words to sting; “(untold pretties)” is a soul-baring story song that borders on spoken word, and “After the Damage” combines the despair of self-loathing and blame into an aching alt-country duet that marks a turning point in the tale.
The tone then turns from conflict and breakup to rumination and regret. “Betty Ford” is a dark and harrowing struggle with the inevitable ultimatum that addiction fosters; “Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance” finds our subject in a hopeful spot, yet still “somewhere between anguish and acceptance” and “Come Back Little Star” longs for a more innocent time. The winsome pedal steel becomes a main component during this portion of the album. Instrumentally, the final song, “Fifteen Days (Leaving Time Again)” is at once the most sparse and most lush song on the album. Primal drum and guitar figures abut mind-bending mellotron sounds, echoing the uneasy truce between the album’s characters. Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance is a deep, literary, emotionally involving album that will benefit those who listen well to its unique narrative. If for only a few times, it needs to be pored over and listened to from start to finish.