Record Of The Week # 91

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell is an artist who can do no wrong. His mantelpiece is probably buckled from the weight of industry trophies. He’s the current involuntary torchbearer of Americana with qualifying credentials which include a catalogue of some fine music, peer worship, an apprenticeship in the Drive-By Truckers and the ‘correct’ political views. In the US media and record industry this combination generally creates an unstoppable, unthinking, commercial momentum and fawning reviews. With such a malaise I’d usually distance myself, however, his seventh release confirms the garlands around his neck are hard won and worthy.

There are no dramatic shifts in sound from his other four releases of original material since 2013. He still captivates with music and lyrics that cover a wide breadth of topics. The topics are usually introspective and acutely personal. Dave Cobb produces again. I like this album for its consistency more than his other three releases. 

“What Have I Done To Help” is a fine opening with a bass that underpins a lighter acoustic topping with Isbell self-flagellating over his apparent lack of action to help those he has the ability to help. It’s a recurrent theme for Isbell who laments those less fortunate. He believes either his skin colour or status isolate him from their cruel realities. On this album his guitar gets more fluid and adopts many sounds. Here it wails seductively under a repetitive, yet satisfying chorus. “Be Afraid” turns on his fellow artists who fail to speak out about social issues: their self pre-occupation displays an acute lack of self-awareness. The song is 80s rock with a loping snare drum beat and an anthemic chorus with lots of REM guitar reverb. Terrific.

In the same way “Overseas” hits a heavy rock groove. An insistent and thudding beat eventually gives over to an electric solo guaranteed to sell a few million air guitars. Apparently there are two angles to the story; it was initially spawned out of separation from his musician wife (Amanda Shires) when she embarked on a solo tour. The first opening bars of “Running With Our Eyes Closed” has you again back in the 80s with a Mark Knopfler guitar sound, however, the song broadens out to generic FM Radio rock. All the time Isbell can pick a deft phrase or riff. The voice is uniquely mellifluous; the words, melody, arrangements are perfect throughout.

Isbell can be an open book and his life and family providing fertile predicaments to plunder. He’s been an alcoholic and throughout his recordings he never runs from the struggle. “It Gets Easier” sums up his daily battle “It gets easier but it never gets easy / I can say it’s all worth it, but you won’t believe me”. Likewise he visits the joy and responsibilities of fatherhood on “Letting You Go”. Like Brandi Carlile’s “The Mother”, it’s a song of wonderment and slight awe at this prized possession. Over a slow beat with occasional slide guitar moments he delivers a beautiful tune. Here he moves the timeline along to her eventual flight to lead her own adult life. Touching and articulate.

I said ‘hard won’ because you don’t release such albums without a lot of reflection, graft and inspiration. From the first listen you know you’re in the presence of something important. Wisdom and reflection pour from each song; wrapped up in the most delicate and economic wordsmithery. He now has a run of releases that justify the genuflection. I’m on one knee as I write this.

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