Something More Than Free

Jason Isbell

Southeastern, 2015

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Something More Than Free makes up the second act of what is thus far a trilogy of albums Jason Isbell has recorded with producer Dave Cobb, whose keep-it-simple-and-work-the-song approach seems to fit Isbell like a well-worn pair of cowboy boots. Interestingly enough for those who care about such details (and I’m one), this album contains the exact same lineup of players behind Isbell as 2017’s The Nashville Sound, even though the latter is credited to Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, and this is presented as a solo disc.

This seems odd only until you actually listen to the album, on which Isbell and Cobb keep the arrangements spare, never adding more than the songs call for, constantly keeping the focus on the words and stories and moments described. The whole band is present, but they mostly stay in the background, stepping up only to add small flourishes to the heart of this album: the songs. Those songs are a touch gentler and brighter but no less serious than on the preceding, largely autobiographical Southeastern, his first album after getting sober. Isbell’s clearly feeling a little better about where he is, but still reflecting frequently on the life he used to lead versus the one he’s choosing to lead now.

Opener “If It Takes A Lifetime” encapsulates all of this within an upbeat melody framing a lyric about the dogged perseverance it takes just to maintain a stable and sober life from one day to the next. “I thought the highway loved me,” he sings knowingly, “but she beat me like a drum,” later adding this brilliant coda: “You were running up a mountain in your own mind / And I thought that I was running too, but I was running from / Our day will come, if it takes a lifetime.” It’s a song about taking the long view, forgiving yourself, and striving to do better while remembering your roots and staying true to those values.

The second half of the terrific one-two punch that opens this album arrives with the jangly, brawny “24 Frames,” with wife Amanda Shires’ keening violin adding an edge to an arrangement that builds steadily to a dramatic chorus. The lyric is both one of Isbell’s finest and one of his most oblique. It seems to be about the process of becoming, about transforming from a person full of illusions and walls to one who sees the world clearly through open eyes and lets it in rather than hiding behind “everything you’ve built that’s all for show.” It also touches on the power of personal connection and personal faith. If all that sounds a bit high-falutin’ for the guy who wrote “Super 8,” well, deal with it. The fact that Isbell is not afraid to go deep is exactly what makes him special. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There’s plenty more good stuff, of course, but beyond the opening pair, the principal highlights for me are two. The autobiographical “Children Of Children”—Isbell’s parents were 19 and 17 when he was born—features an airy, echoey ’70s production sound that reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot, framing a lament to lost time, lost innocence, and the guilt a child sometimes feels for things they had no control over. At the climax, Isbell sings to himself of “All the years you took from her just by being born” before a big drum hit cues the string section and a sky-scraping, cathartic electric solo.

Highlight number four is the title track, featuring an opening couplet that’s an entire story in just two lines: “When I get home from work, I’ll call up all my friends / And we’ll go bust up something beautiful we’ll have to build again.” They need that release—even if it’s self-destructive—because of the soul-crushing work that occupies most of their day. Yet at the chorus the narrator reminds himself “I’m just lucky to have the work,” and in the end, “My back is numb and my hands are freezing / But what I’m working for is something more than free.”

The other seven songs found here rage from ardent love songs (“Flagship”) to philosophical dialogues (“The Life You Chose”) to penetrating, insightful story-songs (“Speed Trap Town,” “Hudson Commodore,” “Palmetto Rose”).

Isbell close things out with an ode “To A Band I Loved,” a heartfelt little vignette about what music can mean in the life of a young person, and how important that emotional connection can be during those critical moments of passage in life. “Somehow you put down my fears on a page / When I still had nothing to say / How I miss you today / Hope you find what you gave, all that hope / Somewhere down at the end of your rope.”

The 400 Unit provides excellent, understated support throughout this album, featuring for the first time the full current lineup of Derry Deborja on keyboards, Chad Gamble on drums, Jimbo Hart on bass, Amanda Shires on fiddle and harmony vocals, and Sadler Vaden on electric guitar. Three years later, after raving over the second album Isbell recorded with this line up and catching them live, I’d call them one of the top units working today, a group that can mold itself to the mood of any song and seems to recognizes instinctively when to play and when to leave space that helps the lyric land that much harder.

Something More Than Free delivers another powerful, rangy, masterful set of songs from one of the premier singer-songwriters of his generation. The thing about Jason Isbell is, he tells the truth, no matter how hard that might be in the context of the story he’s telling. And then he tells it again.

Rating: A-

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