Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Southeastern Records, 2008


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


 “I'm too scared to ask the right questions / And too tired to fill the right shoes”
-- “The Blue” by Jason Isbell

Things seem a lot better for him now, but back in 2008, Jason Isbell was not in a good place.

The North Alabama singer-songwriter-guitarist’s 2007 solo debut Sirens Of The Ditch was made with extensive help from his then-bandmates in Drive-By Truckers, but by the time he began work on this follow-up, his marriage to DBT bassist Shonna Tucker had ended and his drinking and drugging definitely hadn’t. He was now truly on his own and faced with the task of assembling a completely new backing band.

The group that first came together here under the banner of The 400 Unit—the nickname of a hospital psychiatric ward in the area where Isbell grew up—included Derry DeBorja on keys, Jimbo Hart on bass, and Browan Lollar on guitar. Behind the kit Isbell enlisted the drummer from one of his favorite bands, Matt Pence of Centro-Matic, who also co-produced and mixed the album.

The results are both impressive and disappointing. Impressive, because Isbell’s gifts as a songwriter—evident from the start of his tenure in DBT—can be heard continuing to develop and mature here. Disappointing, because that development is still incremental at this point; he’s still working entirely in characters, still keeping his own heart mostly at a distance from his audience, and the sometimes gauzy and too-often subversive production distracts from rather than amplifies the impact of these songs.

There are strong moments, to be sure. Opener “Seven-Mile Island” conjures up an entire imagined snow globe of a world populated by down-on-their-luck characters at the end of their respective ropes, even as the steady heartbeat of drums-slide-banjo-keys interplay grounds the song, giving it almost hymnal quality. It’s an evocative opener whose potential as a launching pad feels undercut by “Sunstroke,” a gentle dirge about a lost couple in a claustrophobic relationship who “make little fools of ourselves” over and over again. Pence’s adventurous drumming fosters a lost-and-spacey vibe that leads to a crushing final couplet: “I never meant to get bored with you / But I never meant to stay.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Good” is another one that feels like it fell short of its potential, a thrummy, driving rocker on which Isbell’s vocal feels contradictorily rather low-key, despite a lyric that points toward the more confessional bent of his later work: “I can't make myself do right / On Friday night / When all these shadows they get bigger and bigger in the light.” If only the outro hadn’t committed the double fault of first flying out of control and then fading out. The downbeat theme continues as “Cigarettes And Wine” delivers a resonant slow blues about heartache helping you sink all the way to the bottom.

The middle of the album is where some of the best material lies. First they turn it up for the propulsive “However Long,” a dark-yet-ultimately-optimistic rocker about the state of the nation that Isbell essays with authority (a stance he would return to memorably on “Hope The High Road" almost a decade later). Then “Coda” offers a hazy yet stately instrumental intermission before we dive into “The Blue,” where Isbell turns the camera on himself and comes close to baring his soul: “I'm too scared to ask the right questions / And too tired to fill the right shoes… Hold me down when I can't find a drink / Dance, so I don't have to think.” Its almost funereal tone is unfortunately undermined by the inclusion of a ticking metronome in the mix that’s distracting and takes away from an otherwise gripping song.

The final four are a mixed bag. “No Choice In The Matter” is slow-and-steady country-blues ballad about a love triangle, augmented by a Muscle Shoals-ey horn section—which sounds pretty good on paper, but the song itself never quite gels. The much stronger “Soldiers Get Strange” is a clever, jangly number told through the eyes of a soldier feeling the distance between his military existence and the civilians who used to be part of his life.

“Streetlights” might be the most autobiographical number here, a rambling tune about a road warrior drinking away an evening alone: “And the streetlights help a little, but they're barely half alive / I don't feel much like walking and I sure as hell can't drive.” Elegiac closer “The Last Song I Will Write” narrates a surrealistic, melancholy dream while the music reaches for the sky.

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit was re-released in 2019 with a fresh mix by Dave Cobb, producer of all of Isbell’s later albums, and a bonus track: a ringing, exuberant cover of Big Star’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me.” As you might anticipate, the newer mix substantially improves the sonic quality of the album, gaining sharpness and separation while losing most of the distracting quirks that undermined the original (including that metronome).

It would be three years before Isbell delivered another album, 2011’s somewhat more confident Here We Rest. You want a self-titled album debuting a new band to be definitive in some way, but Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit can’t measure up to that mark; it’s an album sprinkled with strong moments and signs of potential that today stands mostly as an early signpost on a long road that Isbell has traveled many miles down in the years between.

Rating: B-

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