In one of the songs on Jason Isbell’s seventh solo album since stepping away from the Drive-By Truckers, the singer sings again about his struggle to maintain his sobriety, “It gets easier, but it never gets easy.” He could just as easily be describing the work of creating transcendent music that lives up to the commercial and critical successes of his two previous albums, 2015’s Something More Than Free, and ‘17’s The Nashville Sound, both of which earned Isbell and his band The 400 Unit Grammy awards for “Best Americana Album.” Bigger names have folded under that kind of pressure, trapped with writer’s block, or just phoned it in, stuck in a derivative repetitive cycle. But here on Reunions, Isbell and long-time producer Dave Cobb have pushed the envelope, stretched out to embrace a bigger, fuller rock sound, while he’s written songs that deliver as much pop music panache as they seek to maintain Isbell’s folk and country roots.
All of which is not to suggest that Isbell has abandoned the music that brought him to the party. “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children” are two tracks early on the album rich with acoustic guitars, the first telling the story of difficult childhood in a broken family with a distant father. The second one eulogizes a childhood friend who has died too young, a writer who was always “taking notes,” who once wrote a song “I said you stole from Dylan.” David Crosby shows up to sing harmony on “Only Children,” and he and Jay Buchanan (of Rival Sons) sing background vocals on the album’s opening track, “What’ve I Done to Help,” which builds and stretches out to nearly 7 minutes as we get a feel for the vibrant potency of The 400 Unit when they’re given a rhythm funky enough to work with, and the chance to let the lead guitar run free.
And speaking of guitars, “Running With Our Eyes Closed” leans way into Dire Straits territory with a Strat sound that is worthy of copyright infringement, but they take it up to 11 on the slow burning jam of “Overseas,” with guitarist Sadler Vaden turning in a heroic performance not wasting a second of the song’s five minute length. “St. Peter’s Autograph” is a folk song in the vain of last time’s biggest hit, “If We Were Vampires,” only this time he’s trying to ease the grief of his wife, Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle with The 400 Unit when she’s not working on her own music or playing with The Highwomen, at the unexpected passing of her musician friend, Neal Casal. We hear Shires’ violin best on the piano ballad that tells the story of a bad man who seeks redemption for a violent life by washing his guilt away in “The River.”
“Be Afraid” is faster, tense rocker that takes on the passive stance of many country artists when it comes to politics. It’s a bold, in your face response to an industry that recoiled from “White Man’s World” on his last album, which challenges white male privilege by referencing sexism in the country music industry before showing sympathy for First Nations’ peoples and people of color. In the new song, Isbell sings “We won’t shut up and sing/Tell the truth enough you’ll find it rhymes with everything,” and to his peers who refuse to take a stand on issues that matter he exclaims “if your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice/to sing a cover when you need a battle cry.”
Lyrically, Isbell remains a craftsman who can sound like he’s sharing the intimate details of his life, yet do so in a way that is broadly applicable, and this time there’s a noticeable trick where he leaves a phrase hanging in the air that says one thing, but then adds a few words in the next that change the meaning. Given the title of “What’ve I Done To Help?” before he adds “Somebody saved me.” By acknowledging that “the world’s on fire,” Isbell makes the case against indifference to the hurt of others by seeing that “the heart gets tougher/Nothing given, nothing found” is harmful as it portends the loss of one’s own humanity. “Overseas” addresses the distance created by his and his wife’s separate careers, but the lyric first promises that “My love won’t change,” before acknowledging a darker truth, that “My love won’t change anything.” There’s more going on in these song’s than what’s obvious from the start, there’s often a tense undercurrent which makes repeated listens that much more rewarding.
Isbell and The 400 Unit had to record Live from the Ryman in 2018 to bring the fuller, larger rock dimensions of their sound to a recording. With Reunions, they’ve pulled off that same feat in the studio, but without sacrificing the sense of connection and intimacy that Isbell’s writing brings to his songs. Like “Something To Love,” which closed out The Nashville Sound, where Isbell addressed the hope he has for his and Shire’s young daughter, Mercy. Here he acknowledges on “Letting You Go,” that watching her grow, “it’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going/but the hard part is letting you go.” On this seventh album, Isbell never loses contact with his inner voice, he’s just given it a larger audience by embracing a bigger, more polished production that anticipates a larger crossover audience that will no doubt appeal to rockers. It’s a solid move. As was the decision to release the album a week prior to its official May 15 release date through independent record stores, which are struggling in this challenging pandemic.
Key Tracks: “Be Afraid” / “Overseas” / “What’ve I Done To Help”
Artists With Similar Fire: Drive-By Truckers / Dire Straits / Steve Earle
Jason Isbell Review History: Live From The Ryman (2018) / The Nashville Sound (2017) / Something More Than Free (2015) / Southeastern (2013) / Live In Alabama (2012) / Here We Rest (2011) / Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit (2009) / Sirens Of The Ditch (2007)
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb