It’s been all change for Jason Isbell and Something More Than Free finds him building on a clutch of awards that followed the critical acclaim for his last album. If Southeastern was the tipping point that saw his burgeoning fan base develop into something more solid, the new album is his most potent statement yet. Along with his band, The 400 Unit, Isbell has worked his socks off, while at the same time his new found sobriety and marriage to Amanda Shires seem to have unlocked his creativity, pushing his cinematic songs on to a whole new level. It sounds so easy and natural, yet is clearly a work of considerable craft, carefully constructed to maximise the impact as it hits you wave after emotional wave.
It’s only four years since Jason Isbell first made himself meaningfully known in my musical world, but an awful lot has happened in that short time. The first album to catch my ear was Here We Rest, an album that found Isbell returning home to his native Alabama, finding a rich vein of inspiration amongst the blue collar folk and people he had left behind. By then Jason had already had several years of ragged, rock ‘n’ roll adventure as part of the Drive By Truckers, although my interest in the band had already waned by the time he joined – a mistake, it seems I should have been paying attention, at very least for the song Outfit.
Not long after discovering the album, there was a gig at the Garage in Islington, which didn’t quite go as planned, when the guitar’s pedal board malfunctioned, necessitating some hasty improvisation. His excellent band, The 400 Unit was also reduced to a trio. Nonetheless there was a certain raw thrill as compensation and a dawning sense of what had been missed from his Truckers’ days, with a bigger than expected crowd, who were already tuned in to Jason’s obvious talents.
Here, after all, was a songwriter of rare gift, tapping a rich vein, no, make that a nerve, of empathetic songwriting. With a poet’s eye for detail, Jason was treading the high voltage wires between the hard-working families, the damaged and the depressed desperados and the underdog but undaunted, spirited survivors that people small town America. In fact, make that small town and big city anywhere, come to that. Here were jilted lovers with suicidal tendencies, war veterans, barflies and others who might readily draw scowling disapproval, given dignity by Jason’s sharp portraits and soaring melodies.
It was with what followed, however, that things got really interesting. Firstly there was a period of silence, not unusual for an American artist, but one that proved to be significant. Unbeknown to most, Jason spent some needed time in rehab. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle was taking its toll. There had been clues and maybe Go It Alone, one of the most impassioned songs on Here We Rest was a little close to the knuckle with lines like, “It’s realizing just how close you’ve come to death, And rearranging accordingly.”
It was only when he reappeared that a story started to emerge, with hints of a man reborn and newly in love. In 2013 there was the promise of a new album and another gig at the Garage, this time acoustic and sharing the bill with Amanda Shires. The suggestion was that they were more than just gigging together, and so it has proved. But with the show came some hair-raising stories, while the album, Southeastern, also painted a picture of a period of transition, with its sense of some things abandoned on the roadside and the redemptive power of love.
Much of the album sounded personal, lost and lonely days, but with a more positive dawn on the horizon, light to balance the darkness. Super 8 even revisited the territory of Go It Alone, but this time with the gallows humour of a survivor rather than that sense of desperation. Southeastern was extremely well received and has sold strongly. It pushed Jason into the Americana spotlight and he found himself the recipient of three AMA awards at last year’s ceremony, winning Song and Album Of The Year and most impressively, Artist Of The Year, to complete the hat trick.
Speaking of hat tricks, Something More Than Free pulls off another, completing a trilogy of albums that is all but peerless. As literate, emotionally charged, euphonic Americana goes, it’s hard to beat. Three plays in and there’s euphoric air-guitaring, a lump in the throat and with the emotions in overdrive that frisson as word play and melody combine to hit the sweet spot again and again.
Isbell is once more teamed with producer Dave Cobb, who worked on Southeastern. There are also the familiar names of keys man Derry DeBorja and drummer Chad Gamble, while bassist Jimbo Hart reappears, having skipped that last album. The highly talented Sadler Vanden is a more recent recruit to the 400 Unit, while Amanda Shires, another talent in her own right, is reassuringly present on fiddle and violin, also adding her voice here and there on harmony and backing vocals. Between them they’ve cooked up a fabulous and varied album that if anything, feels calmer and more concise musically, while once again the words pull no punches sounding both personal and embracing everyman in the same breath.
It Takes A Lifetime is a bright and breezy opener featuring some strong acoustic and electric guitar picking in a country-soul vein that made me think of Delaney and Bonnie, especially with the gospel infused chorus, with its strong harmony support. It’s a chorus of sorts anyway as the lyrics don’t simply repeat and second time around Jason sings, “We got too far from our raising and we fought ‘til we were numb. You were running up a mountain in your own mind. And I thought that I was running too, but I was running from. Our day will come if it takes a lifetime.” The song seems to take the view that a life of honest toil, abstinence and patience is its own reward, with just a hint of previous adventures not working out.
24 Frames gets its classic status as it builds steadily to a searing slide guitar break and also sits on the cusp, with a past , “…when you didn’t own a beautiful thing,” and a future where, “…you make yourself worthy of the loving.” It has a slightly more anxious tone contained in the killer lines, “You thought god was an architect. Now you know. He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow.” While the 24 Frames pass in a second, taking with them the movie of our lives capture in increments.
Flagship is a mostly acoustic affair and a wonderful extended metaphor about faded glories and dying love. But once again it’s packed with storied detail and turns towards a determined stance not to go that way.
How To Forget casts a backward glance, with some unwelcome reminders from an equally unwelcome old flame, with lessons to learn and unlearn. It skips along, with uncomplicated melodic guitar highlights and a lovely flurry of country picking towards the end.
Children Of Children sounds like something from the David Crosby or Stephen Stills school of songwriting with some lovely ringing chords and a great bassline that recalls Déjà Vu. It seems that both Jason and Amanda were born to young parents and this pays tribute to their sacrifice. It has another air guitar moment in the stonking instrumental coda.
It keeps getting better and The Life You Chose, is urged on by a deceptively easy shuffle that breaks out into a strong chorus. It’s packed with more of that cinematic detail and the bittersweet feelings of a love that never seems quite fulfilled.
Something More Than Free is simply glorious, with some delicious fiddle, and again pays tribute to Jason’s father and the thought that sometimes all you can do is do what you can to build a solid family foundation. The pay off of surrendering the dream is, “My back is numb and my hands freezing, but what I’m working for is something more than free.”
Speed Trap Town is another more intimate acoustic strum and a wonderfully evocative title, suggesting both a place you race through on your way to somewhere else, at the risk of a ticket, but also the suffocating clutch that keeps you snared to its streets. There are details of a football game, an affair and a hospital vigil that tell a big story in a few lines. There’s more of that slide guitar as the protagonist finally slips the wire with, “Sign my name and say my last goodbye, then decide, There’s nothing here that can’t be left behind.”
Hudson Commodore is another breezy and mostly acoustic song which finds a matriarch indomitable spirit, who won’t be bowed by any convention and seems determined to live life to the fullest, with the titular automobile being the object of her dreams.
Palmetto Rose is a sprawling southern rocker that draws on that unique culture and asks only, “It’s the women I love and the law that I hate, But Lord, let me die in the iodine state.”
Finally, To A Band That I Loved is both a fitting tribute to Jason’s Drive By Truckers Days, albeit in a backhanded kind of way as it recalls a raucous performance that frightened the audience off, except for a couple of members of the likeminded Centro-matic band, with whom Jason later bonded, even playing with them periodically. There are signs of Jason the music fan in lines like, “Somehow you put down my fears on a page, When I still had nothing to say.”
There is no mistaking the power of these songs, which comes through the unique grasp that Jason has of the storyteller’s art. Not only does he write characters, but he lives them or lives with them, not just as a passive observer, but to do for others as Centro-matic did for him. His understanding is that the biggest picture can come from the smallest detail, it’s how and what we notice that comes to define us in our own stories and memories, even if they zip by at 24 frames per second. The message seems to be take it all in, every instant, and as you open yourself to our shared experience, the more you will learn, the more you will live and the more you will love. It’s what we have together that binds us and makes us all Something More Than Free.
Review by: Simon Holland
Released 17 July 2015 via Southeastern Records
Available via: Amazon