You have to feel for Jason Isbell. It would be so much easier being mediocre. Especially consistently mediocre.
Here’s the problem for Isbell, a man with a career well into its second decade, who found acclaim with 2013’s Southeastern and topped it with 2015’s Something More Than Free. Acclaim which extended as far as being recognised by the cloth-eared Grammys so people who don’t trawl the Americana/alt.country byways were made aware of him.
When your last two albums have been absolute giants of songwriting, emotion and connection, you return to unreasonable but unavoidable expectations.
That is, we expect at least the same, if not next level: that you will improve on the personal depths of Southeastern; on the detailed narratives of Something More Than Free; on the songs that were so well prepared they fell off the musical bone to be savoured.
Consequently, when what you offer is “only” a very, very good record - a collection of fine songs that mostly play personally and have the same roomy yet never booming production of its predecessors, but never quite make it to the level of commanding genius of its predecessors - it feels almost like a letdown.
Which is stupid, of course.
Take Tupelo, a slow turning country ballad which confesses “haven’t been wasted in a long time, but tonight it feels just fine” with the sharp tang of regret kept in check in Isbell’s voice though he can’t keep it out of the guitar.
A song where the man at its centre (sung by Isbell, who credits giving up the drink five years ago as a personal and career life changer) promises “when I get out of this hole I’m going to Tupelo”, and the backing voice - Isbell’s violinist bandmate/wife Amanda Shires - gives more hope than the unreliable narrator can really muster.
Or step from a batch of fascinating songs about isolation, departure and uncertainty in southern men not a million miles away from the Alabaman Isbell (Last Of My Kind, Cumberland Gap, one of the rare rockers, among them) into the harsher light of White Man’s World, where privilege is broken down and explained in detail even Trump voters could understand.
There’s a learned/earned wisdom of Isbell that is reflected in his insights, and not just in the sometimes-searing character investigations. The presumed personal core of Something To Love, which has a positive energy that opens up to the world rather than withdraws from it, grasps a simple fact about childhood and fatherhood.
There are though, a couple of songs – Anxiety and Molotov – in the middle of the record which don’t advance Isbell’s writing, musically or lyrically, or sustain/propel the momentum of the songs either side.
It may be this mini-slump which pulls the album back from Southeastern/Something More Than Free excellence. Which is a shame as the ruminative song of devotion that is If We Were Vampires (acoustic guitar and Shires’ voice playing just under him) and punchy Hope The High Road (organ and drums setting the direction) that appear either side of the lesser tracks are among the quiet achievers of The Nashville Sound.
The truth is of course that even at less than peak Isbell still is better than most out there. It’s unfortunate for him that he’s not competing with them but himself.
And that’s tough competition.