Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Southeastern/Thirty Tigers – 2017
If Jason Isbell felt any pressure in following up 2015’s extremely successful Something More Than Free, you wouldn’t know it from listening to Nashville Sound, he and the band sounding both loose and hugely assured.
They crank up the roots rock on a couple of occasions, Hope The High Road and Cumberland Gap, not the Lonnie Donegan classic but a song about being left adrift in a dried up former Appalachian mining town where there’s now just nothing “ but churches, bars, and grocery stores.” Things are grittier with White Man’s World, a politically-charged Neil Young-like slide guitar slow blues about privilege and responsibility that comes with the territory, while Anxiety, a slow-building seven-minute anthem about neurosis that, co-penned by wife and fiddle player Amanda Shires, opens with a touch of prog rock, eventually swelling on strings to a squall of guitar noise, Isbell singing “why am I never where I’m supposed to be? Even with my lover sleeping close to me, I’m wide awake, and I’m in pain.”
However, for the most, they settle into a laid back alt-country groove, established from the get-go with The Last of My Kind, a questioning nostalgia that, sung in the persona of a down-and-out dreamer in today’s America. His Muscle Shoals background is also in evidence as he gets soulful on Tupelo, another song about looking to get back to a better time and place, which conjures vintage Eagles.
Folksy fingerpicked acoustic provides the setting for If We Were Vampires, a simple love song (albeit about how one of them’s likely to die before the other) for his wife, who also provides the harmonies.
Despite the title, there’s nothing explosive about the ringing guitar mid-tempo roots rock of Molotov, another reflection on things left behind, except this time it’s about how youth’s vow to “ride the throttle till the wheels came off” gives way to settling down and making babies, but still hanging on to the fire inside.
Both it and the scampering acoustic end of a relationship number, Chaos and Clothes, which, despite some good lines (“you’ve got the past on your breath, my friend, let’s name all the monsters you’ve killed”) feels like an undernourished Paul Simon. Despite this slight dip, it ends in strong form with Shires on fiddle for the bluegrassy Something to Love, a father’s words of advice to their child to find the thing that makes it worth getting out of bed in the morning, even when there seems no point. Referencing his own childhood of Sunday night family gatherings on the porch singing things like the Southern hymn, The Great Speckled Bird, learning to make the chords and sing the words, for Isbell that’s making music. As the song says, it serves him well.