If you’re an old man, shouting at the clouds about how modern music isn’t the same as it was in your heyday, you would probably enjoy the recent output of Jason Isbell. Isbell’s an Americana artist, whose sincere albums are timeless and elegant, and could have been made any time in the last fifty years. Hailing from Alabama, the soul sound of Muscle Shoals is in his musical DNA, as is the work of respected songwriters like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.
Isbell first came to prominence as a member of the Drive-By Truckers, serving as lead guitarist and third songwriter beside Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. He attracted attention with songs like ‘Outfit’, written based on his father’s advice upon joining the band, and ‘Decoration Day’.
Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, embarking on a solo career. But his early albums weren’t convincing, and he didn’t come into his own as a solo artist until a 2012 stint in rehab and his marriage to fellow songwriter Amanda Shires. Here are Isbell’s six studio solo albums to date, ranked from worst to best.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
Isbell’s second record is his first with backing band, The 400 Unit. It’s also his least enjoyable record, a talented songwriter phoning it in. Even the best songs, like the punchy ‘How Long’ would merely serve as minor highlights on his stronger records.
Here We Rest
Isbell’s still inconsistent on 2011’s Here We Rest, but there’s some better material here, particularly the graceful and nostalgic ‘Alabama Pines’ and the solo acoustic ‘Daisy Mae’. I also enjoy the Southern soul of ‘Heart on a String’.
Sirens of the Ditch
Isbell’s solo debut features several of his former band-mates from Drive-By Truckers, and it’s the most agreeably raw sounding of his solo releases. Highlights include the rocker ‘Brand New Kind of Actress’, recounting the Phil Spector murder trial, the piano driven ‘Chicago Promenade’ and the blue eyed soul of ‘Hurricanes and Hand Grenades’.
The Nashville Sound
After two low key albums, Isbell reunited with The 400 Unit. I prefer Isbell in singer-songwriter mode, but there are some fine tracks here, as the outspoken Southern Democrat expresses his political views on ‘White Man’s World’ and ‘Hope The High Road’. I love Amanda Shires’ “nasty woman” t-shirt in the latter’s music video.
#2 -Something More Than Free
Isbell’s previous album was full of personal songs, here he writes in a Springsteen-like style, documenting the lives of underdog, blue collar folks. While it’s a singer-songwriter album at heart, with portraits like the title track, there’s propulsion behind ’24 Frames’ and ‘The Life You Chose’.
Isbell sobered up in 2012 and the results were immediate – a stronger, more focused, and more personal batch of songs. It was originally intended to be an entirely solo album, with just Isbell’s voice and guitar, but some tracks feature fuller arrangements. I love the rocker ‘Flying Over Water’ and the thoughtful ‘Relatively Easy’, but the most acclaimed track is the cancer battle of ‘Elephant’.
Are you an Isbell fan? Do you have a favourite album?