Guest Review by Govind Shanadi
Jason Isbell’s follow-up to the highly acclaimed album Southeastern shows the songwriter maturing into a lyricist of the highest caliber.
Isbell was a member of the Athens, Georgia based Drive-by Truckers in the 2000s before branching off into his own solo career. The departure, by all accounts, was amicable, but it shows why many bands with more than one songwriter eventually find the set-up difficult. There’s just too much talent to go around.
Isbell once again packs an album full of beautiful songs without a single one feeling out of place or unnecessary. Isbell’s country rock/alt-country bona fides are still on clear display, but he extends the tradition of country musicians who could just as easily be described as poets (like Townes van Zandt).
As with Southeastern, there is a mix of songs that could be easily be found on both rock stations (if there are any left) and country music stations. However, as good as Southeastern was, the songwriting and lyrics are even more mature this time around.
The album opens with the lilting number of “If It Takes a Lifetime.” The song is about getting older, but trying not to get more cynical. Isbell has been open about his addiction in the past, which is why I bring it up here. He writes, I’m learning how to be alone, fall asleep with the TV on. And I fight the urge to live inside my telephone. I keep my spirits high, find happiness by and by, If it takes a life time.”
By all accounts, he has stayed sober and moreover has gotten married and is expecting a new baby with his wife. This optimism makes its way into many of the songs in the album. There is nothing approaching the weightiness of “Elephant” from Southeastern.
But the lyrics and music never feel saccharine or maudlin. The second song, “24 Frames” is the first single that has enjoyed success in airplay, streaming, and videoplay (or whatever the kids are calling music videos on Youtube these days). It’s not one of the stronger songs on the album, but it is as catchy as a Jason Isbell tune gets, which makes making it the first single a lot of sense.
The third song is quite possibly the best song on the album, “Flagship.” Pop music lyrics are the poetry of our age, with their rhyme schemes and quotability. Rarely does most pop music achieve the level of poetry despite Bob Dylan’s knocking down that door over 50 years ago. Isbell is one of the few. Much of the tension in lyric writing today reflects two trends in poetry in the last 150 years, and that is the tension between the Symbolists of the 19th century (exemplified by Rimbaud and Baudelaire) and the Imagists (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, etc). The symbolists aimed for grand statements about love and other big themes. The imagists on the other hand, held on to the credo “the way to the universal is through the particular.”
Most pop songers come from the Symbolists school (even if they haven’t read a single Symbolist poet, where lyrics are abstract (“Love is blindness..”). However, imagism is harder because specific scenarios, people, and things have to represent much bigger ideas. Most songwriters, obviously, draw on aspects of both. But Isbell has really mastered the Imagist skill of painting a scene with rich detail.
That is most apparent in “Flagship” where he sings:
There’s a few too many years on this hotel
She used to be a beauty you can tell
The lights down in the lobby they don’t shine
They just flicker while the elevator winds
And the couple in the corner of the bar
Have traveled light and clearly traveled far
She’s got nothing left to learn about his heart
They’re sitting there a thousand miles apart
Both the setting and the people are painted in enough detail to picture it. And yet, he says more in these few lines than most music says in an entire album. Despite the concreteness of what he describes, he is saying so much more about love’s tendency to fade in many circumstances without ever spelling it out.
The album is peppered with these types of images, although “Flagship” has more than any other.
“How to Forget” is a postmartum on a failed relationship, in which he asks, “Now that I found someone, who makes me want to live, does it make my leaving harder to forgive?” This is one of the more “country” songs on the album, but very few songs can be pegged discretely into any musical category with Isbell.
“Children of Children” follows and is one of the more rock and roll songs. Steady, syncopated drumming has always been a feature of his songs, going back to his days with the Truckers, when he wrote “Danko/Manual,” which he still plays live The song ends with one of the better guitar solos in his work.
Isbell’s ability to ask deeper, more philosophical questions in everyday language has been a hallmark of country music, going back to when Hank Williams sang “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” “The Life You Chose” demonstrates this very well. “Are you living the life you chose or living the life that chose you.” It’s definitely another highlight in an album full of them.
The album’s title track, “Something More Than Free,” finds Isbell exploring religious themes. Many songwriters avoid such themes, but the song finds Isbell grateful to be able to make a living making music.
“Speedtrap Town” is another imagistic masterpiece. “I dropped a dozen cheap roses in a shopping cart. Made it to my truck without breaking down. Everyone knows you in a speedtrap town. It’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game, sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name,” he sings. It is one of the more heartwrenching songs on the album, but also one of its best.
“Hudson Commodore,” is an homage to a car but describing it that way is a disservice. We have strong emotional bonds, if not to the car itself, then the memories made in them: conversations held, landscapes seen together, and emotional growth. Anyone who has sold a car they owned for awhile has experienced this.
“Palmetto Rose” and “To a Band I Loved” close out the album. The former is a loveletter to the state of South Carolina. The band in the latter song, unfortunately, is unnamed.
There’s really not a bad song on the album. The same can be said of Southeastern. A look back at music history shows it’s hard to put out back to back albums of such quality. By doing so, Isbell has moved himself into being one of the leading lights of current music.