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 seven studio solo albums to date, ranked from worst to best.
#8 Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
Isbell’s second solo album is his first with his 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. The extended versions of the record feature a cover of Big Star’s ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me’.
#7 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’. It marks the first appearance of his future wife Amanda Shires on an Isbell record.
#6 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’.
Isbell is settled into a comfortable groove on his seventh studio album. As on his previous record, he’s back with the 400 Unit, delivering both contemplative acoustic songs and roaring rockers. ‘Overseas’ is a great rocker, but the acoustic songs are the highlights – his relationship with his daughter on ‘Letting You Go’ and the pretty ‘River’.
#4 The Nashville Sound
After two mostly acoustic albums, Isbell reunited with The 400 Unit for The Nashville Sound. 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’.
#3 Something More Than Free
Isbell’s previous album, Southeastern, was full of extremely personal songs. On Something More Than Free, Isbell writes like Springsteen, documenting the lives of underdog, blue-collar folks in the heartland. While Something More Than Free is a singer-songwriter album at heart, with character portraits like the title track, there’s propulsion behind ’24 Frames’ and ‘The Life You Chose’.
On his eighth solo record, Isbell finds the perfect middle ground between the rootsy rock of the 400 Unit and his insight and empathy as a singer-songwriter. There are riff rockers like ‘This Ain’t It’ and pretty acoustic tunes like ‘White Beretta’ and ‘Strawberry Women’. Standout track ‘King of Oklahoma’ splits the difference, both tough and heartfelt.
Isbell became sober in 2012 and the results were immediate – a stronger, more focused, and more personal batch of songs. Southeastern was originally intended to be an entirely solo album, with just Isbell’s voice and guitar, but some tracks feature fuller arrangements. My favourites include rocker ‘Flying Over Water’ and the contemplative ‘Relatively Easy’, but the most acclaimed track is the chronicle of a cancer battle on ‘Elephant’.
Are you an Isbell fan? Do you have a favourite album?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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