JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT
Jason Isbell does not want to just write about himself. He certainly doesn’t want to either write about, or be asked if he’s writing about, his own story of addiction, recovery, rebuilding and renewal. He’s said that for him the mark of a mature writer is expanding beyond the personal into the universal with the characters and the situations in his songs.
In truth he has – in fact long has had – a capacity for empathy, for understanding of others and their circumstances that broadens lyrics into more than confessionals and has given us some of his best songs.
Maybe the best of them, Elephant, touches notes in all of us with any experience of failure and fear, and the walk between acceptance of it and clinging to even the suggestion of a rescue rope. Who doesn’t have an elephant in the room – in the life – that we try to ignore, and failing that, try to drown with something, or someone?
So his intentions are fine here, except that Reunions still seems driven by personal … well, I hesitate to use the term ‘demons’, as that implies something closer to the dynamics of his addiction than feels appropriate - he’s still sober; he’s still married; he’s still being a father - but the intensity of feeling in these songs makes that word feel sort of right anyway.
And oddly enough I’m not even talking here about the pure emotional kick of Letting You Go (picture a wistful Tammy Wynette with Gram Parsons band), the kind of song that fathers will feel in their guts, no matter the age of their child, as Isbell sings about the often inexpressible feelings of joy and hope and fear and separation and pride and every other damn thing. He may be projecting for himself, he may be telling another’s story, it doesn’t matter – this feels deeply rooted and true.
The fact is, before you even get to Letting You Go, the album’s final track, there’s been so much already about the questions we ask ourselves, and the way we dream our way out of the, here and now, that Isbell seems to throb with the energy of it all.
In What’ve I Done To Help (a southern soul rock song equally familiar with Isaac Hayes and Dan Penn) and Be Afraid (like peak years-R.E.M chasing the fire) the core predicament is seeing what needs to happen and what role we can play and choosing not to. The circumstances are political - most clearly in Be Afraid, though not that hidden in What’ve I Done To Help - but the dilemmas are personal, right down to the idea that while “somebody saved me” still the easiest route is to “keep my head down” show up to work, put the money in the mattress and “lock the doors at night”.
Isn’t that enough? Not when you accept that abandonment was available to someone else in your life when “I cut anchor and I drifted out to sea/You found me busted and somehow you trusted/I was not what I could be”. So can you just look away?
Within the powerful but controlled classic rock shape of Overseas (shares in Pink Floyd and Tom Petty, a preparatory guitar that scorches, a solo that grips, and an opening that paints a full screenplay: “This used to be a ghost town but even the ghosts got out”) a story of separation that grows by degrees into something much harder, maybe even a little desperate, without losing its hold.
“And I saw you in our daughter’s eyes last night/When she caught me in a lie/And I need you here to make both of us believe/But you're overseas.”
If these are some of the punchiest parts of the album, the quieter songs, as ever with Isbell, cut even deeper without showing an obvious blade. This is where waves of hurt or an unexpected shift disturb the sand, muddying perspectives and complicating matters thought done, or at least buried.
In River (which takes more than a title from Springsteen, circa ’80 and ‘87), Isbell and his partner Amanda Shires – on ghostly voice and violin – carry warmth through a story that builds a note of freedom delayed and small terrors suppressed. St Peter’s Autograph (a ballad more ruminative than depressive) balances love and care with a desire to shed the load that’s been carried from before this relationship and now colours it in hues that seem indelible.
During Only Children (which turns from Lilac Time folk country to Dire Straits smoke rings when the solo arrives) the lines pick their way through details that create a whole life but still dip in and out of what we know, or think we know of him too.
From the deceptively throwaway “Walking around at night/Fighting my appetite” to the layered “Heaven's wasted on the dead/That's what your mama said/When the hearse was idling in the parking lot/She said you thought the world of me/And you were glad to see/They finally let me be an astronaut”, Isbell moves in and out of focus.
You could say the same about It Gets Easier (built like an E Street Band performance of accumulating but clearly visible layers) which opens on a striking post-sober image: “Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking/Same dream I have about twice a week/I had one glass of wine/I woke up feeling fine/That’s how I knew it was a dream”.
The advice that “it gets easier, but it never gets easy” is addressed to another, and to him; feels generalised but comes home hard; is about something specific, but in fact plays as eminently adaptable.
It’s subtly classy and indirectly powerful, which is how the best songwriters work. Which is how Jason Isbell works.