Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Southeastern Records, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


“You tell the truth enough / You find it rhymes with everything”
-- "Be Afraid," Jason Isbell

The hazard for every artist who aspires to that label and achieves a measure of success is the same: how will success change them, and therefore their art? Will they ever dig as deep again, be as hungry or vulnerable or determined to deliver hard truths as they were back when they made their name by opening a vein and letting it all rush out?

Some try to protect themselves by pushing back against the very self-awareness that made their art special, shutting down the questioning voices in their head. Jason Isbell is built of sterner stuff, an artist gifted with both uncommon sensitivity and bull-headed determination, an alcoholic in recovery whose fierce drive to create can feel at times like both a blessing and a curse. Reunions finds the eight-years-sober Isbell inviting the ghosts of his past back into his consciousness as he revisits a parade of bad choices, regrets, and damage done.

Isbell’s attempt to reconcile with his former self—the out-of-control drunk who self-destructed his way out of a band (Drive-By Truckers), a marriage (to ex-wife and DBT bandmate Shonna Tucker), and a circle of friends—has been nothing if not fraught. Isbell’s milestone 2013 album Southeastern charts his upward climb from rock bottom into recovery and redemption in the arms of his wife and 400 Unit bandmate Amanda Shires. Theirs was supposed to be a happily-ever-after story as they built a family and creative partnership that has seen them record and tour together while bringing their young daughter along on the road. But life is never that simple, is it? The ever-frank Isbell revealed in recent interviews that partway through the recording of Reunions, Shires moved out of their house for ten days because of the strain the recording process was putting on their relationship. During the same rough patch, Isbell took his first swallow of alcohol—an accidental swig of Listerine—in eight years.

Reunions, in other words, was a dangerous album to make. Isbell is the only one who can judge if it was worth it in the end, but I can tell you this: it’s a damn fine piece of work.

As if to underscore his stubborn streak, Isbell opens the album with the most difficult song on it, the knotty “What’ve I Done To Help,” a nearly seven-minute overture that gathers momentum and tension while adding layer after layer as it carries the listener through a narrative that often parallels the last decade of Isbell’s life. In places it feels like both an apology to the people he wronged back in his drinking days, and an expression of the guilt he feels for leaving that life behind and achieving a measure of happiness. “I broke my word, I lied on a bible / Just to feel a little free / She didn’t deserve it / Nobody ever deserves it / But I cut anchor / And drifted out to sea / You found me busted / And somehow you trusted / I was not who I could be… We climbed to safety / You me and the baby… Now the world’s on fire / And we just climb higher.”

Having delivered that memorable topic sentence, Isbell delves deep into his box of memories for the tremendous “Dreamsicle,” a lilting, lyrical number full of indelible images illustrating the loneliness and heartache of moving around as an early teen trapped in a dysfunctional household. “New sneakers on the high school court / And you swore you’d be there,” he sings, and it’s a bitter memory, leaving implied his own deep-seated fear of repeating these mistakes.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Only Children” moves the setting to later adolescence and features Shires’ harmony vocals and a gently picked electric backed by acoustic guitar and gauzy organ colorings, a somber set piece that sets up the album’s first full-on rocker. “Overseas” is a big, rangy electric number drenched in echo that finds Isbell grappling with the opposing poles of isolation and connection, wanting to believe a happy ending is still in reach while facing up to the fundamental truth that “Our love won’t change / Our love won’t change / Our love won’t change a thing.” A pair of slicing, evocative guitar solos light up the second half.

The endlessly versatile 400 Unit—Derry DeBorja (keys), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Shires (fiddle and harmony vocals), and Sadler Vaden (guitars)—delivers another fresh look on “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” an airy tune with layered, bluesy guitars and spooky keys, while Isbell delivers a lyric that feels like it could be about the recent rather than long-ago past: “Well you are who you are when you’re angry / When you’re scared or you’re sad or bored… Sleeping on my own / When you won’t forgive me / Swallowing my pride ‘til I nearly choke.” Piano-and-fiddle ballad “River” finds Isbell exploring an idea that feels like a relic of his drinking-days mindset: “The river is my savior / She’s running to the sea / And to reach her destination / Is to simply cease to be / And running ’til you’re nothing / Sounds a lot like being free.”

Six songs in is where a lot of albums begin to drop off and dip into the “filler” bucket—a notion that Isbell obliterates with track seven here, the headlong rocker “Be Afraid.” “Be afraid / Be very afraid / But do it anyway” he urges while wrestling with the hardest lesson of adulthood: accepting that you’re not in control, and you don’t have all the answers: “See everyone of us is playing dice / That we didn’t roll / And the loser is the last / To ask for help.”

Easing off the gas, the gentle, mid-tempo “St. Peter’s Autograph” finds Isbell encouraging Shires to mourn the suicide of a dear friend (Neal Casal), capped by a gorgeous, Harrison-esque weeping electric solo. The penultimate “It Gets Easier,” a steady-on electric number, finds Isbell’s addictions haunting his dreams and bleeding into his waking consciousness as he moves through the daily fight for sobriety. “Last night I let myself remember / Times I forgot a woman’s name / I blacked out behind the wheel / How tight the handcuffs feel / My daughter’s eyes when she’s ashamed.”

The first nine tracks are heavy as hell—so what does Isbell deliver to close things out, but one of the wisest, most heartfelt songs any father has ever written for his child. “Letting You Go” is more than just gorgeous and touching; it feels like a new American standard, a song that will be played at weddings decades from now. I can’t point to a single emblematic line because every word is simply perfect.

Isbell’s exceptional songwriting again benefits from the steady hand of his longtime producer Dave Cobb at the board. This time out the production feels grander and more consciously crafted than on the more naturalistic Southeastern and Something More Than Free; I’m not sure it’s an improvement, but it’s a change and sometimes that’s necessary for an artist to continue to grow.

Among its many dimensions, Reunions delves deep into what it means to be a man, offering a chronicle of fears and failings that explodes the idea that a man can simply will himself to become a better person. Isbell knows this is empty bravado, knows that connection with and commitment to others is the only true path to becoming the man he wants to be, and chips away at his own illusions line by line with sometimes brutal honesty.

Is Reunions a bookend to Southeastern, the end of a chapter of self-assessment, or the beginning of a new cycle of darkness and light? It was clearly a risky album to make, and you’re left hoping it will ultimately stand as another milestone along the path of Isbell’s personal growth and recovery. But as Isbell himself might observe, we don’t know yet what it all means; life is about making the best choices you can in the moment. You want to believe Isbell’s choices will be good ones, but if you could distill this album down to a single idea, it’s that human beings are inherently flawed creatures; we can only hold onto hope and do the work. Reunions is an exceptional piece of work, both flinty tough and nakedly vulnerable, a cry from the heart that demands to be heard.

Rating: A-

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© 2020 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Southeastern Records, and is used for informational purposes only.