The third solo album from Patterson Hood, front man and main songwriter of the Drive-By Truckers, finds him constructing a largely first person, autobiographical narrative. The impressionistic story harks back to 20 years ago, when Hood was 27, a troubled period in his life when his first marriage broke up, his first band broke up, and he fell out with his family. These events are occasionally refracted through today’s perspective and songs on the album began in the form of a novel Hood was working on to pass time on the road. While the book remains unfinished, the characters and events he was writing about translate well into song. The album features nearly all the other Drive-By Truckers, as well as members of Centro-Matic, songwriter Kelly Hogan, and Hood’s father David, founding member and former bass player with the Muscle Shoals Band.
So, what’s the difference between a Drive-By Truckers album and a Patterson Hood album? From the horse’s mouth: “It is in some ways the most personal album I’ve ever made. There has always been a lot of me in all of the albums we’ve done, but usually semi-disguised as character sketches and stories, but the first person narrative in this one is pretty firmly rooted in autobiography, albeit in two dramatically differing time periods.”
Musically, it’s like a more acoustic, less raucously full-on DBT album. Take ‘Leaving Time’, which melodically has affinities with ‘Drag The Lake, Charlie’ from The Big To-Do, and thematically with ‘The Fourth Day Of My Drinking’ from the same album (which itself echoes ‘Daddy Needs A Drink’ from Brighter Then Creation’s Dark), but is handled in a gentler fashion. Quite a few cuts are piano rather than guitar led, e.g. the title track, ‘Better Off Without’, and ‘Come Back Little Star’ – the latter a tribute to the late Vic Chestnutt and a duet with Hogan.
The quasi spoken-word vocals of ‘(untold pretties)’ and ‘Depression Era’ owe a debt to Steve Earle, while Mike Cooley contributes judicious banjo, most effectively on ‘Better Than The Truth’. The stand out among these tales of family, domestic violence, addiction and infidelity is probably ‘After The Damage’, which features a lovely treated pedal steel solo, courtesy of John Neff, and reverbed piano. And if that all sounds slightly too sedate, there’s Scotty Mooresque slapback guitar groove of closer ‘Fifteen Days (Leaving Time Again)’.
Clearly not content with fronting one of America’s best and most hard-working rock bands, Patterson Hood here proves that he has enough in his kit-bag to service a fruitful sideline solo career. But when the material is this good, who can blame him giving it a go?