Jason Isbell joined Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley as a guitarist and vocalist in acclaimed Southern Rock band, The Drive-By Truckers, in 2002. He immediately impressed with songs like ‘Outfit’, which details his father’s advice to him upon joining the band (“Don’t worry about losing your accent, a southern man tells better jokes.”). Divorcing Truckers’ bassist Shonna Tucker, Isbell left the band in 2007, and started a solo career.
Isbell’s first three solo albums were with backing band The 400 Unit. I’ve heard these, but haven’t taken to them as strongly as his later career; they often feel like Isbell is coasting and not fulfilling his potential.
In 2013, a newly sober Isbell released Southeastern, a collection of songs that were personal and more stripped down than his early albums. Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free are both use Americana music as the medium to convey an emotional punch that’s not contrived, and to tell empathetic stories. If you’re convinced that modern music isn’t producing great songwriters, Isbell’s strong evidence to the contrary, producing work that’s heartfelt and timeless.
Jason Isbell Album Reviews
After three solo albums of under-achieving rootsy rock with The 400 Unit, Isbell’s girlfriend arranged an intervention and put him in rehab for alcohol addiction. The Isbell that emerged was more focused and writing more personal songs, achieving the potential that his work with The Drive-By Truckers hinted at. These songs are mostly stripped down to basic acoustic arrangements.
There are tales of personal redemption on ‘Live Oak’ and ‘Travelling Alone’, and nostalgia coloured by regret on ‘Songs That She Sang in the Shower’, but the most devastating piece is ‘Elephant’, where ill people try to ignore their circumstances despite the futility. ‘Relatively Easy’ is a great closer, a pretty ascending melody and guardedly optimistic lyrics. Among all of the contemplative acoustic songs, there’s a great riff rocker in ‘Flying Over Water’, and it’s probably my favourite song on here, as the change of pace makes it stand out.
Southeastern isn’t perfect – the irritating rocker ‘Super 8’ is a good candidate for worst song on a great album – but Southeastern is a masterful work by a talented songwriter.
Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell followed up his 2013 breakthrough Southeastern with an album that followed a similar template musically. But while the songs on Southeastern were often personal and autobiographical, Isbell’s songs on Something More Than Free often take the vantage point of an outsider looking in, often empathetic stories from America’s heartland; the narrator on the excellent title track is too tired to go to Church, but thankful for the work. If this already sounds reminiscent of Springsteen, it’s perhaps not a coincidence that there are songs named ‘Speed Trap Town’ and ‘Hudson Commodore’.
After enjoying Southeastern instantly, it took me longer to appreciate Something More Than Free; mostly because it starts with the generic ‘If It Takes A Lifetime’; an upbeat country song that deals in the clichés that Isbell generally avoids. But further in there are plenty of treasures; I assumed ‘To A Band I Loved’ was a tribute to his former band-mates in The Drive-By Truckers, but it’s actually about Centro-Matic, while ’24 Frames’ and ‘The Life You Chose’ are immediate and propulsive. The line “are you living the life you chose/are you living the life that chose you?” is evidence of Isbell’s skill as a lyricist.
Isbell’s ability to seamlessly slide into a third person mode of song-writing on Something More Than Free is evidence of his skill, and it’s another very substantial effort.
After a couple of albums of largely acoustic material, Isbell reunited with the 400 Unit for a more rock oriented set. It’s a good career step, widening his stylistic range, but it’s still less satisfying than his two previous albums. As they showed, Isbell’s at his best when he’s personal and vulnerable, and the songs on The Nashville Sound don’t always play to that strength. On the other hand, Isbell’s move away from personal to political is worthwhile – Isbell’s been a critic of President Trump, and it manifests itself on the call for unity of ‘Hope The High Road’ and the questioning of white privilege on ‘White Man’s World’.
The rock sound works on excellent songs like ‘Hope The High Road’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’. There are also low key charmers like ‘Tupelo’ and the confusingly titled song of devotion, ‘If We Were Vampires’. I find the seven minutes of ‘Anxiety’ difficult – it’s clearly a meaningful song for Isbell, but it’s overlong, and a little sluggish
The Nashville Sound is very worthwhile, but it’s less consistent that his previous two records, and ever so mildly disappointing.
Ten Favourite Jason Isbell Songs
Flying Over Water
Something More Than Free
To A Band I Loved
Hope The High Road
Life You Chose