Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free | Album Review

Thu, Jul 30, 2015, 12:12


Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell

Thirty Tigers/Southeastern Records

Singer / Songwriter

In 2013 Jason Isbell released one of those rare records that grows in stature. “It was nice”, he told Rolling Stone, “that Southeastern took off the way it did because it made a lot of things in my life a lot easier, but this one’s not nearly as depressing. It’s bit more celebratory. There’s not as heavy a body count.”

Well, true, the momentum in these 11 stark stories is forward and not mired in guilt. I’m not so sure about the celebratory feel or the body count. But there’s no doubt the 36-year-old Alabama guitarist and father-to-be has produced another Americana gem that demands and repays serious attention.

Isbell in 2013 was going through serious changes. Rehab-dry but guilt-ridden after a wet decade spent in southern rock band Drive By Truckers and pursuing a solo career, he’d also fallen for Amanda Shires, herself no mean Americana musician.

Shires would inspire her former lover, Rod Picott, to pen the classic Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail, and she would likewise prove a muse to her new lover and future husband. Isbell’s resulting songs on Southeastern zigzagged between rapture and despair, acute observation and graphic narrative.

It’s the same this time, with the emotional volume turned down. The album is less about him and more about others, though the demons of small- town American life feel the same. Interestingly, Isbell states that “the great thing about this particular job is you don’t have to tell anybody how much of a song is true and how much isn’t.”

His heart, however, is in everything. And his way with lyrical and musical detail is impressive. Producer Dave Cobb’s settings are also more stylised, such as the strings and stinging guitar coda on Children of Children, though in general restraint is the tone. Isbell’s touring band, The 400 Unit, flesh out the sound with flair and the harmonies are a joy. Key tracks include 24 Frames, The Life You Choose, the title song and his tribute to Centro-Matic, To a Band That I Loved.

Give it time – this album deserves it.