When Jason Isbell released his 2013 album Southeastern, you could palpably feel the earth tremors from the sound of jaws dropping in unison around the globe. It was, quite simply, a masterclass in songwriting, focusing on such bleak subjects as watching helplessly as a loved one slowly deteriorated from cancer (‘Elephant‘), the vengeful murder of an abusive father by one of the victim’s classmates (‘Yvette‘), and suicide (‘Relatively Easy’) amongst others. Cleverly though, all of these tunes had a positive side, as the record attempted to find salvation in the darkest places. It was an unabashed, undeniable classic and, to those of us who were paying attention, one of the best albums of the past thirty years.
It was something of a curious surprise then, when Isbell – a serial Twitter user – brazenly announced to the world of social media that he’d finished work on his forthcoming release and that “this batch of songs are better than the Southeastern ones”. “How is that even possible?”, we all protested. Quite clearly, the man had gone barking mad.
Or had he?
‘Something More Than Free’ begins with what sounds like a long lost Gram Parsons classic, one of his more optimistic numbers, sure, perhaps during his tenure as one of the Flying Burrito Brothers, but ‘If It Takes A Lifetime’ certainly has a faint whiff of the late country legend about it. “I’m learning how to be alone“, sings Isbell, “I fall asleep with the TV on, and I fight the urge to live inside my telephone“, and once again we feel an empathy with the artist that very few can articulate so well. After all, we’ve ALL done that, haven’t we?
It’s abundantly clear though, that the former Drive-By Truckers man is in a very good place right now. Happily settled down with his wife and fellow musician Amanda Shires, who is a key player here, and Isbell a proud dad to be, it’s understandable that this album is pure unbridled joy and optimism all the way. Indeed, half of it plays like a love note to Shires, as his sparring partner and soul mate, though thankfully it never feels like the canoodling couple desperate to show off their affection to bypassing pensioners and dog-walkers in the local park. Indeed, how can it, when it contains references to – and is named for – the tragic figure of Sylvia Plath? Oh no, Jason wouldn’t let us off THAT easily.
The other half – although often told through a narrative character – would appear to be partly autobiographical, as though Isbell is viewing his hard drinking younger self – with a combination of bemusement and regret – from his older, wiser pedestal. Nowhere is this more evident than on the supremely catchy ‘How To Forget’, where he describes it as “my past a scary movie I watched and fell asleep, now I’m dreaming up these creatures from the deep“. There’s humour here though, with the opening verses attempting to banish a former lover (or acquaintance) from the room before his new one finds out too much about his chequered history. “Give her space, give her speed, give her anything she needs, get her out of here!” sings Isbell with tongue planted firmly in cheek and you can’t help but smile.
This is followed by the incredible ‘Children Of Children’, arguably his most epic composition yet, certainly since leaving the Truckers anyway. It begins something like a James Taylor record and ends up with the kind of searing, stratospheric guitar work that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Think Neil Young‘s ‘Like A Hurricane’, but not quite as extreme. I’m pretty sure it’ll make my “Best Songs of 2015” list come New Year’s Eve.
Then again, there are an awful lot of candidates on ‘Something More Than Free’, especially during the first half, where you’ll find the wonderful ‘Flagship’. After beautifully painting a picture of an old hotel where “the lights down in the lobby, they don’t shine – just flicker while the elevator whines“, he focuses his attention on a “couple in the corner of the bar who’ve travelled life and clearly travelled far”, but duly notes that “she’s got nothing left to learn about his heart, and they’re sitting there a thousand miles apart”. It’s an affectionate and acute observation, from which Isbell then turns to address his wife (presumably), with the words “baby let’s not ever get that way”. It’s a real tender moment and fills your heart with a warm glow.
Or there’s ‘Palmetto Rose’, which begins with the dirty Southern groove of, say, Jace Everett‘s ‘Bad Things’ (theme tune to HBO’s ‘True Blood’) before adapting a 3/4 time signature and imploring “Lord let me die in the Iodine state“. That one confused me a bit, because for some reason I taught myself all the US state capitals and nicknames fairly recently, and was racking my brains trying to remember what that one was. I ended up Googling it, thinking I must have the memory of a goldfish, but it was South Carolina’s OLD nickname, apparently, so I’ll let myself off just this once.
‘The Life You Chose’ sounds alarmingly like David Gray, but has a deceptively dark lyric, as does ’24 Frames’, another belter with the brooding refrain of “You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow”, or the magnificent ‘Speed Trap Town’. The latter track features some of Isbell’s most poetic work yet, and could easily have slotted onto ‘Southeastern’, when you consider the stark, bittersweet lyric – “The doctor said daddy wouldn’t make it a year, but the holidays are over and he’s still here“, coupled with “(He) was a tough state trooper ’til a decade back, when that girl that wasn’t momma caused his heart attack”.
So, “better than Southeastern”? Debatable, but one thing’s for sure, it’s certainly approaching the same greatness, and it grows on me more and more every day.
“Though everyone tried to ignore us, we’d scared them all off by the chorus“, begins the Alabamian on the closing track ‘To A Band That I Loved’.
Seriously Jason, I highly doubt that’s true.