Thursday, January 4, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1088: Jason Isbell

2017 was a successful year in music. I bought 41 albums released last year, and so far I’ve reviewed 11. Two didn’t make the cut and have since departed the collection. 

I spent the holidays reading other people’s top ten lists thinking I could do better. So here is my Top 10 list out of those 41 albums, and probably another 50 or so that I gave a cursory listen to but didn’t impress me sufficiently for me to add them to the collection.

10.  Joan ShelleyJoan Shelley
9.  Secret SistersYou Don’t Own Me Anymore
8.  Sera CahooneFrom Where I Started
7.  Mountain GoatsGoths (Reviewed at Disc 1043)
6.  Sheer MagNeed To Feel Your Love
5.  Run the JewelsRun the Jewels 3
4.  Dori FreemanLetters Never Read
3.  St. VincentMasseduction
2.  Conor Oberst Salutations
1.  Jason Isbell & the 400 UnitThe Nashville Sound (Reviewed at Disc 1050)

Honourable mention: Beck – Colors, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice, Margo Price – All American Made, Torres – Three Futures

Anyone who says no one is making good music these days should go listen to those 10 albums and prove themselves wrong.

Disc 1088 is…Something More Than Free
Artist: Jason Isbell

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? A Giant Head cover leans awkwardly out of frame. Some kind of flower gets equal billing.

How I Came To Know It: This album was my introduction to Jason Isbell, after I read a review a couple years ago. Since then I’ve gone on to buy three more Isbell records. This was also my gateway into Isbell’s former band, the Drive-By Truckers, so it was a pretty successful musical discovery.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Jason Isbell albums. “The Nashville Sound” is the best (see “best of 2017” list above). 2013’s “Southeastern” puts in a solid argument it should be second but I’ll give the edge to “Something More Than Free”.

Ratings: 4 stars

Compared to other Jason Isbell albums, “Something More than Free” is practically jaunty, but don’t be fooled; the album is as serious and contemplative as any of Isbell’s other efforts. If anything, the catchy anthems on the record just make its explorations of the human condition that much more effective at sneaking up on you.

Isbell’s previous effort, “Southeastern” is a thick and moody blend of folk, rock and country and there are many songs on “Something More Than Free” that follow that formula again with solid results. Isbell is an accomplished guitar player who can lay down a mournful blues-rock riff and an evocative strum with equal grace.

Here he adds pop elements that lift the musical tone of the record in places. This doesn’t detract from his brilliant songwriting, but instead bring more dynamic range to the record. In fact, the album’s two most pop-oriented songs, “24 Frames” and “Something More Than Free” are what initially drew my interest. These are songs that on a very surface level could be mistaken for empty Nashville Nu-Country, but it only takes a couple of verses to demonstrate that Isbell is digging deeper, both lyrically and musically.

On the title track Isbell takes good ole boy working man blues and manly-man topics and blends them with subtle irony that makes it clear that all that hard work, old time religion and clean livin’ are much more complicated than they seem. The character in the song feels “just lucky to have the work” but as an audience we bear witness to the terrible toll a lifetime of subsistence living takes on a man. Isbell manages to create a nuanced mixture of admiration for the working man, and criticism of the system that grinds him down.

Isbell is the master of creative love songs and this record’s entry is “Flagship.” Here Isbell pleads to his lover to not let the magic of their love fade as years pass. The song features an allusion to Springsteen’s “Racing in the Streets” – a song where love has faded over the years – and vows to not fall into the same trap. The Springsteen song laments:

“I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camaro off my back and drove that little girl away
But now there's wrinkles around my baby's eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She sighs "Baby did you make it all right"
She sits on the porch of her daddy's house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me we're gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands”

And on “Flagship” Isbell puts his own spin on the story with:

“Then I see you in that summer when we met
And that boy you left in tears in his Corvette
Baby let's not ever get that way
I'll drive you to the ocean every day.
We'll stay up in the presidential suite
And call ourselves the flagship of the fleet.”

The song shows an appreciation of musical history as Isbell reimagines the story in a way that both honours the source material and adds a fresh twist to the lesson within it. And if you noticed the switch of car models it is worth noting that the Corvette is considered one of Chevrolet’s “flagship” vehicles.

Isbell’s songwriting talents frequently make me think of Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle, with his ability to evoke powerful emotions out of very specific small-town imagery. On the brilliant “Speed Trap Town” he evokes the restless trapped feeling of a man confronting the imminent death of his father, but lines like...

“It’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name
These 5-A bastards run a shallow cross
It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss”

...set the mood of those events through specific, grounded imagery that set the emotional backdrop far more effectively than any obvious bedside hospital scene could manage.

The album is book-ended by songs about being on the road. “If It Takes a Lifetime” about how you lose yourself out there (best line: “I thought the highway loved me/but she beat me like a drum”) and “To A Band I Loved” where Isbell reminds himself how as a young man he was inspired by seeing a band and now he is out there every night, weary and beaten like a drum, but hopefully inspiring those that will come after him.

It is a quiet acceptance of the sacrifices we make, whether for life or art, and how those sacrifices matter. It is a subtle blend of admitting and absorbing frailty and trusting it will make you stronger.

The only issue I have with this album is that in the two years since I bought it I’ve played the living hell out of it. Fortunately, it inspired so many other amazing Isbell purchases I can now safely rotate them without overdoing it.

Best tracks: If It Takes a Lifetime, 24 Frames, Flagship, Something More Than Free, Speed Trap Town, To a Band That I Loved

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