LIKE A NOVEL SET TO MUSIC: Jason Isbell & “Something More Than Free”

Isbell

The follow-up to 2013’s Southeastern offers nuggets of Isbell’s hard-earned wisdom via perfectly-wrought lyrical details, all against a warm, mostly acoustic backdrop of gorgeous melodies and easy-going rhythms.

BY FRED MILLS

What does an artist do when his or her previous record generated unanimous critical huzzahs, landed ‘em on numerous magazine covers (including, ahem, BLURT’s issue 14) and notched multiple year-end awards—in this instance, the Americana Association’s Artist Of The Year, Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year? That level of acclaim must be immensely gratifying on one level, and a much-needed form of redemption for all the self-doubt that inevitably goes into any new project for a musician. Vindication, too.

On another level, however, it can be a millstone, because you’ve set your own bar impossibly high. What’s that old saying about reaching an artistic peak, a career high? Nowhere to go but down now… And I don’t care what any of them say in the interviews they do promoting the subsequent record: there’s no way to avoid at least the occasional how-do-I-top-that worry, so if they offer some party-line reply like, “I just went into it with no expectations…”, they’re lying. I’ve read speculative reviews about Dylan, for example, in which he is presumed to not give a damn about the public or its expectations when he enters the studio, but that kind of reckoning is more a reflection of Dylan’s outward opaqueness than an actual assessment. The dude’s human.

Now, to be fair, when Jason Isbell painted his masterpiece back in 2013 with Southeastern, there’s no way he didn’t sense he had something special on his hands. He said as much to interviewer Nick Zaino in our Isbell cover story: “I think my goals have always been the same, just to try to write the best songs that I could and tell the best stories and record a period of time. And then not screw it up in the studio. Serve each song individually and try to record the song in a very natural and honest way. I just think that we’ve gotten better at it. And I think I’m better at writing, just because I’ve spent more time with it.”

Isbell summed up his work ethic thusly: “You just write real hard. You just sit down and write real hard and you pay a lot attention to it and don’t get rid of your editors. There are people around you who will tell you a song is shit if it’s shit. And you put in the work. You put in the hours. There’s no magic to it. Just sit down and write.”

Indeed, to those of us who’d followed his career starting with his Drive-By Truckers tenure, the album was a logical conclusion, a summation—certainly not an out-of-the-blue shot. As I put it in my own review of the record, “2011’s Here We Rest [compared] to Springsteen circa Darkness On the Edge Of Town, given how that album was similarly populated by people who were grinding through assorted crises, some literal and some existential, and learning how to cope—or in some instances failing to cope, and suffering the residual fallout. If that notion holds, then I’m willing to propose that Southeastern is Isbell’s The River. Like Springsteen, he’s now turned the lens decisively inward in order to move beyond merely whiffing life’s elusive truths and gain a primal understanding of the ties that bind.”

 

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With the new Something More Than Free, I’m loathe to extend that Springsteen metaphor, partly because it would set up false expectations on the part of the reviewer. What I can say, though, if pressed to at least briefly lend a comparison, is that just as the completion of mega-selling (it hit #1 on the charts and spawned several hit singles) The River freed the Boss to go in whatever direction he wanted, the success of Southeastern gave Isbell the opportunity to operate with a fresh palette and to proceed under the assumption of opening a new chapter.

Just to cite one bit of proof: Southeastern is regarded as Isbell’s initial artistic step forward with sobriety on his side. As such, that record was dotted with plenty of references to booze, drugs, personal trials, and a life that had been on the verge of bottoming out. Those same references no doubt contributed to the public’s embrace of the album, whether from its stark (if frequently poetic) confessional nature that had no patience with making excuses, or simply because a lot of us could identify with the dude. That part of Isbell’s job duly taken care of, Something More Than Free doesn’t automatically dispense with reflection—right from the outset, with opening track “If it Takes a Lifetime,” Isbell references the day-by-day nature of his ongoing recovery, the song’s working-stiff narrator noting how he stays away from booze and drugs (“working for the county keeps me pissing clear… the nights are dry as dust”). Still, the songwriter also clearly has his eyes on a long-term goal now.

In album standout “24 Frames,” for example, against a backdrop of gently jangling guitars, a reassuring bassline and wife Amanda Shires’ gorgeous, countryish fiddle hook, Isbell engages in an internal meditation that is nothing if not the sound of a man who has seen the proverbial light and is determined to make the best of this second chance:

“This is how you make yourself worthy of the loving she gave to you, back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing… you thought God was an architect, now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow, and everything you’ve built that’s all for show does up in flames—in twenty-four frames.”

Most of us can go our entire lives without ever arriving at such a deeply profound understanding of life’s fleeting nature, of its perverse vicissitudes. (God as a pipe bomb? The Christian right’s gonna have a field day with that one.) And in song after song, Isbell offers nuggets of his hard-earned wisdom, not necessarily in a battle-scarred, war-weary manner, and never like a preacher determined to shove the gospel down the congregants’ throats, either. Isbell is, after all, a storyteller first and foremost, and by allowing his characters—some of whom are rendered autobiographically, others probably as composites, and still others as pure fictions on hand to serve the story—to provide matter-of-fact observations with just enough detail to pique our interest, the songs gain their resonance.

There’s the traveler in the acoustic “Flagship” who looks back over the past and the arc of a relationship, concluding, “You gotta learn to keep yourself naïve, in spite of all the evidence, believe.” Later, the same traveler, or perhaps it’s the above-mentioned working stiff, reappears for “The Life You Chose,” a rumbly little anthem with a big-sky vibe, encounters an old lover and queries, “Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you? Are you taking the grownup dose? Do you live with a man who knows you like I thought I did? But I guess I never did…” By song’s end he’s asking the girl to take one last chance with him, but all along you can sense that, at least on some level, he knows it’s never gonna happen and that he’s trapped in a prison of his own memories and regrets.

And in the album’s lone rocker “Palmetto Rose”—by and large, these are acoustic-based songs with sundry, but subtle, embellishments around the edges, including slide guitar, organ and synth—a crusty cab driver picks up the narrative, outlining a proudly defiant life lived in the South and tacitly acknowledging how it is gradually slipping from view: “In that slow-motion between living and dead, he looked in my eyes and he told me, he said, ‘It’s war that I wage to get up every day. It’s a fiberglass boat, it’s azaleas in May. It’s the women I love and the law that I hate/ But Lord, let me die in The Iodine State.” In addition to regularly dwelling up his own southern-ness and how the region has shaped his sensibilities, Isbell’s got a solid track record of carving lyrical scenarios from conversations he’s had or that he overheard, and in his rich evocations and telling nuances one finds the mark of a genuinely gifted storyteller. Even Isbell’s throwaway lines are better than many of his contemporaries’ most precious ones.

I thought the highway loved me/ But she beat me like a drum—“If It Takes a Lifetime”

Jack and coke in your momma’s car/ You were reading “The Bell Jar”—“The Life You Chose”

In the lights, on the stage, in my heart/ I guess we’re all still finding our part—“To A Band That I Loved”

Seventeen ain’t old enough to reason with the pain/ How could we expect the two to say in love/ When neither knew the meaning of the difference between sacred and profane—“Children of Children”

When I get home from work, I’ll call up al lmy friends/ And we’ll go bust up something beautiful we’ll have to build again—“Something More Than Free”

More a quiet masterwork than an outright masterpiece, Something More Than Free isn’t qualitatively “better” than its predecessor. As previously noted, that would be impossible, and it would also be unfair to view it through such a lens. What it is, is Jason Isbell once again mining for songwriting gold and delivering a consistently pleasing collection. To say that the listener has to dig just a bit for the payoff isn’t to damn it with faint praise, either, because it’s the kind of record that rewards repeated listens with hours of pleasure. Boasting arrangements that keep the focus squarely on Isbell’s voice—still soulful, still full of vigor, simultaneously ancient and youthful—and thereby serving to ensure that the lyrics are clearly discerned, Something More Than Free is like a novel set to music, each of its 11 songs a separate chapter that, when absorbed in full, leave you with the same kind of psychic shift a good book sets into motion.

Isbell can hold it up proudly alongside Southeastern, his fans secure in the knowledge that this man has a long, fruitful career ahead of him, and that anyone that wants to trust him and come along for the ride won’t be disappointed.

As Isbell himself put it a few years ago, “You put in the work. You put in the hours.”

Photo Credit: David McClister. Below, watch the NPR video of Isbell and his band The 400 Unit putting together “24 Frames” in the studio.

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