The first rule of making a solo album is there's no point in bothering unless you're trying to do something you couldn't do within the context of your band, and Patterson Hood clearly understands this. The tenor of Hood's lyrical voice is strong enough that there's a clear link between his music with the Drive-By Truckers and his solo material, but his first two albums, 2004's Killers and Stars and 2009's Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), found him exploring themes that were too quirky, intimate, or idiosyncratic to fit comfortably within the big, muscular sound of the DBTs. The paradox of his third solo effort, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, is that it sounds and feels the least like an album by the Truckers, but comes closest to capturing the deep emotional resonance of their finest work. The songs on Heat Lightning were inspired by an uncompleted novel Hood wrote about a period of personal, musical, and familial chaos in the '90s, and while this music isn't as stark as the four-track demos that became Killers and Stars, the songs are as personal and emotionally naked as anything the man has ever released, and the music is a fine match in its spare but evocative arrangements. These 12 songs are dominated by failing relationships, friendships lost to bad luck and destructive impulses, family discord, and the downsides of a life lived in transit, and though Hood has never been known to shy away from tragedy in his lyrics, there's an unpretentious literacy in Heat Lightning's unflinching yet compassionate storytelling that's deeply affecting. And while several members of the Drive-By Truckers accompany Hood on these sessions, the overall impact isn't just quieter, but finely attuned to the dour realities of these characters in an appreciatively individual way. Hood has never written a set of songs that cohere as powerfully as these do, the individual snapshots gaining strength and depth as a whole. And while it may be a bit out of place thematically, Hood's collaboration with Kelly Hogan, "Come Back Little Star," is a beautiful and heartbreaking farewell to their friend and colleague Vic Chesnutt, and a brilliant reminder of the unpredictable mysteries of fate, as good a summation of this album's themes as anything. While Patterson Hood's first two solo albums were full of fine music, they often seemed to have been created as a venue for songs that just didn't suit the DBTs. Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, on the other hand, stands on its own as a catalog of troubled hearts and souls, and it's a brave, compelling collection from an artist who continues to evolve in remarkable and unexpected ways.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming