The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Southeastern Records, 2017

http://www.jasonisbell.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/31/2017

Jason Isbell is a songwriter.

Yes, he’s pretty damned good at the whole singing and playing thing, too, and he’s got a fine, fine band in The 400 Unit, but it’s clear from the first line of this superb album to the last that what he’s all about is writing songs with real texture and depth and emotion and detail. The man is a born storyteller, and these songs are the tales he chooses to tell, of alienation and true love, racism and anxiety, and a desperate hope for the future that he still stubbornly clings to.

Isbell’s often-keening voice carries a hint of grit that lends further authenticity to these tunes, which fall into the broad category of Americana but feel genreless, rootsy songs that incorporate elements of country, folk, blues, rock and soul, in roughly that order. He’s also a wonderful singer who pays attention to and invests himself completely in the phrasing of every line and every word, adding weight and resonance to each pointed observation he offers. He’s supported throughout by a crack band consisting of Derry deBorja (keys), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), his wife Amanda Shires (strings and harmony vocals), and Sadler Vaden (electric guitar), with producer Dave Cobb adding acoustic guitar and percussion.

Melancholy acoustic opener “Last Of My Kind” weaves memories and anecdotes into a song about feeling out of place in the urban world. “I couldn’t be happy in the city at night / Couldn’t see the stars for the neon lights,” he sings, but it’s not an angry alienation, more like a sort of wistful “Why do things have to be this way?” lament. The anger, he saves for “Cumberland Gap,” a thundering, ferocious rocker about the flip side of the same coin—the alienation and despair of country life: “Ain’t much money in the old-time mandolin / So I cash my check and drink ’til I’m on my ass again / Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole.” But even if there was a place for him to escape to, he could never run away: “I thought about moving away but what would my momma say / I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.”

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The stately country-folk ballad “Tupelo” dials back the angst, but only in the music. The lyric is again about feeling trapped and longing for escape. “Kept her close, way too close to me / She never lived up to my memory…When I get out of this hole, I’m going to Tupelo / There’s a girl down there that’ll treat me fair.” Of all the tunes here, though, the one that’s the biggest thumb in the eye of the mainstream country crowd is “White Man’s World,” an edgy, powerful statement about racism and privilege. “I’m a white man lookin’ in a black man’s eyes / Wishin’ I’d never been one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke,” goes one powerful verse. Ultimately, he sings, “We’re all carrying one big burden and sharing one fate”—all in this together, in other words, and as dire as the lyric is in places, it ends with one small, bright ray of hope: “I still have faith but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”

Shifting gears like a champion driver, Isbell next offers up “If We Were Vampires,” a darkly humorous yet fundamentally sweet pledge of everlasting love that doesn’t shy away from exploring the fear underlying that pledge: “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we’ll be 40 years together, and one day I’ll be gone, or you’ll be gone.”

Fear takes center stage on the big-boned lament “Anxiety,” as Isbell, with an assist from co-writer Shires, acknowledges: “I know I’m a lucky man today, but so afraid that time will take it all away from me… I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” In one of the few missteps here, it feels like the several verses and extended outro are more than the song needs; it’s 6:58 that might have been stronger at a judiciously edited 4:45.

“Molotov” is an incongruously sunny country-rock tune about settling down and missing your younger, more reckless self, with hints of Springsteen in the lyric and echoey lead vocal. The rambling, rambunctious folk-rock tune “Chaos And Clothes” has more than a little Dylan in its rangy, fearless lyricism, about fighting with your own nature, and the consequences: “You say love is hell but it’s the ghost of love that’s made you such a mess.”

Hope reasserts itself in the rather Drew Holcomb-flavored “Hope The High Road,” a tune that seems to be both a plea for reconciliation with an old friend and a diagnosis of the state of the nation post-election: “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well / Uninspired and likely mad as hell / But wherever you are I hope the high road leads you home again / To a world you want to live in.” The album closes with the lilting country-folk number “Somebody To Love,” another well-crafted shot of hope and optimism in the face of despair: “I hope you find something to love / Something to do when you feel like giving up / A song to sing or a tale to tell / Something to love, it’ll serve you well.”

It’s good advice that Isbell himself has clearly taken to heart. Like all the ones that really matter, Jason Isbell is more than an entertainer, he’s a man on a mission, who brings strong craft and total commitment to every aspect of this music: lyrics, melodies, singing, arrangements, and performances. It’s early yet, but The Nashville Sound already feels like one of the highlights of 2017, a beautifully crafted album of roots music that’s unafraid to explore the darkest corners of the American soul.

Rating: A

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