Back when I first started writing here, I mentioned offhand that while my main focus would be political, I’d occasionally find time to write about music or movies or the like. Now, I’m not much of a movie guy, to be totally honest, but I do like listening to different kinds of music, and there have been plenty of albums in 2017 that I’d have loved to talk about. I plan to have mid-year and end of year explorations of some of these albums, but before then, it’d be weird if I didn’t have at least one standalone album review under my belt. So, on that self-critical note, let’s talk about Jason Isbell.
For the uninitiated, it’s important to note that Jason Isbell is an artist that straddles two different genres. He’s mostly known today for country music, but he got his start as a member of The Drive-By Truckers, legends in the Southern rock genre. Since leaving that band in 2007, he’s slowly grown in stature in the independent country scene, but still commands significant rock credibility as well – his last album Something More Than Free topped Billboard Magazine’s album charts for both rock and country albums.
And to get my own opinion out here, Isbell deserves all of the success and critical acclaim he’s gotten and then some. Not only is he a powerfully evocative songwriter, but his instrumental prowess probably goes underappreciated on his more recent (and more country-inflected) releases. Some of the compositions on Something More Than Free approached being a blend of Americana and progressive rock, and the result was my third favorite album of 2015, even better than To Pimp a Butterfly, if you’ll believe it. And so here we are with another album from Isbell and his band The 400 Unit. Like his last two, it’s produced by Dave Cobb, a bonafide superstar in the world of country producers. Naturally, I had extremely high expectations for this project, both because of Isbell’s previous work and the song I heard in advance of its release, the harrowing If We Were Vampires. So enough stalling – did Jason Isbell make magic again?
Yes, yes he did. I’m happy to report that The Nashville Sound is another stellar entry in Jason Isbell’s already impressive discography, and easily one of the best albums of 2017 so far. I’ll have to get back to you guys on whether or not it’s better than Something More Than Free, but that’s because it’s a different animal than that last record in quite a few ways. So let’s start with music here, and my first impression here is that it’s a more fiery release than Isbell’s previous one, and more uptempo at times. If you’re more of a rock fan and want to hear some distorted electric guitars, you’ll get those on songs like Cumberland Gap, Hope the High Road, and the intro and outro to Anxiety. Those first two are the fastest-paced cuts on the album, and Isbell makes the most of it with some sticky hooks, but that’s not to say that the slower songs don’t also have some moments of real instrumental excellence as well. The smoky guitars and squealing fiddle on White Man’s World really captures the flavor of the old-school Muscle Shoals sound (something that seems increasingly common in independent country these days), and there’s some excellent mandolin and fiddle work on the closer Something to Love that adds some nice texture. One musical choice that caught me off guard was on If We Were Vampires, where the bridge features what I can only call a reverb solo, and it sends a chill up my spine every time. Dave Cobb’s an exceptionally versatile producer who can tackle a variety of different genres well, but he also knows when it’s time to strip things back and let the words carry a song, like on the opener Last of My Kind, where the guitars and fiddle are there to support Isbell’s vocals, the latter positioned at the front of the mix where they belong.
But as good as the instrumentation and production is, the main attraction of a Jason Isbell project is always going to be the lyrics and the stories that he tells, so let’s get to those. It’s important here to note that his last album was a transitional one, to some degree musically, but mostly conceptually. On Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell made a point of closing the door on his past, ending one chapter of his life and starting a new one, his old insecurities and failings behind him at last. And this album reflects that matured perspective – Isbell is married and raising a child now, and his songs are now less introspective and more concerned with the world around him. Just because he’s faced down the demons of his past doesn’t leave him entirely at ease, though. And what’s always set Jason Isbell apart as a songwriter is his unstinting, unflinching honesty; he tackles uncomfortable, intimidating subjects and cuts straight to the core of what frightens us. He did this when talking about the ugliness of dying on Southeastern, and again on Something More Than Free when he described the painful cost of teen pregnancy. On this album, I thought I’d seen the darkest of it when I heard If We Were Vampires, which has absolutely haunting observations on bereavement – true love may last forever, but lovers don’t, and one will probably have to learn to live without the other. However, the track before it, White Man’s World, proved just as shocking. Again, Isbell’s strength is his honesty and his refusal to hold anything back as he gets to grips with the legacy of white, and especially white male depredation in shaping America, and the kind of country he’s leaving behind for his daughter. And while he’s never tried to participate in that kind of oppression himself, as he acknowledges on the fourth verse, sometimes complicity is as small as looking the other way as you see someone else be cruel.
In fact, White Man’s World was another surprise for me in showing that this album would be more political than Isbell’s prior work. I expected more extroversion, but a big part of this album isn’t just focusing more on other peoples’ struggles, but also Isbell trying to see things through the perspectives of others, whether that’s the displaced rural man who worries that history is leaving him behind on Last of My Kind, or the alcoholic miner’s son desperate for escape on Cumberland Gap, or the recent divorcee looking to start over again on Tupelo. Isbell treats each of these characters with appropriate empathy even while acknowledging their failings, like the protagonist in Cumberland Gap’s inability to find his own calling, which leaves him wallowing in his cups for lack of other ideas, or the man on Tupelo’s bitterness. Isbell does well in making these songs feel lived in and three-dimensional.
That said, the character sketches are one part of this album, but the bulk is devoted to Isbell’s new role as a husband and father. On Anxiety, he observes that as much as he’s been blessed to have what he does, there’s always that lingering shadow of doubt as he wonders if it will last. And as I mentioned already, If We Were Vampires makes that fear more explicit, since he knows this marital bliss can’t possibly last, and either he or his wife will have to face losing the other and coping with that loss. These two running themes of the album, aging and the growing concern for other people, are brought together on the two tracks where Isbell references his year-old daughter. On White Man’s World, Isbell says that it’s not too late to make amends so long as you’re still breathing, but he finishes up by saying that as much as this world’s injustices have shaken his faith, he still feels something when he sees the fire in his little girl’s eyes. His wife Amanda Shires joins him in singing that final line, which just sells that moment where they both share a vision of a brighter future for their child. Lastly, there’s the album closer Something to Love, a song of advice written to his daughter. On this one, Jason Isbell talks about the formative experiences that shaped his childhood and his love of country music, and shares his hope that his daughter will find her own dreams and passions to carry through life. Musically, it’s one of the most country songs in Isbell’s discography, and it concludes this album on one hell of a high note.
So yes, I absolutely loved listening to The Nashville Sound. It’s not perfect – there’s a conspicuous flubbed rhyme on Molotov that I think breaks the momentum of the song, but this album still offers a great deal of musical and lyrical diversity, going from heartwrenching to heated to haunting to hopeful over just ten songs. Overall, I’d give this album a 9/10, and my highest recommendation. If you like either country music or southern rock, you need to hear this. Even if you don’t, I still recommend it for its impeccable storytelling and emotive delivery. If Jason Isbell’s brand of cerebral and highly melodic Americana truly became the sound of Nashville, then we’d all be better off for it.
Recommended tracks: Last of My Kind, Cumberland Gap, White Man’s World, If We Were Vampires, Anxiety, Hope the High Road, Something to Love.
Weakest track (but still quite good): Molotov.