Jul 13, 2015
Album Review: Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
Anyone who’s ever loved the Drive By Truckers has that first, seminal encounter story. Mine was the Friday after Thanksgiving, 2001. I’d heard The Southern Rock Opera (release date: September 12, 2001, how’s that for strange luck?), and been teleported back to my childhood in early-1980s Florida. Real, Southern rock and roll, and nobody else was playing it.
That first show in my immersion: The Nick, in Birmingham. I saw the DBT, and my musical life changed in a bar the size of your living room. For five years, if they were playing within 300 miles, I was on the road. Oh, and at that Nick show? There was this young, third guitarist playing with them. It was his fourth show with the band, and his name was Jason Isbell.
For many DBT fans, it wasn’t until Isbell was gone until they realized he was the backbone of an important band. That band will never be the same, and the three-album run they had with Isbell will forever be considered DBT’s high-water mark.
Draw a straight line between the last cut of Isbell’s Here We Rest (a hopeful, joyful “Tour of Duty”) and the first song on his new album, Something More Than Free (“If it Takes a Lifetime.”)
That vector was Southeastern, Isbell’s sobriety record, and the notice-serving album that a generation had its songwriting gold standard. Dark? He referred to it in a recent interview as having “a high body count.” A bit of an understatement, unless you were an intimate of Pol Pot. I listened to it twice, the week it came out. Just stopped cutting. I kid.
A story song isn’t worth listening to – or writing, presumably – if it doesn’t pierce a little bit of you. Southeastern’s characters scooped out most of your innards. On Something More Than Free, they offer equal parts hope, redemption and humility, while reminding us their creator is intense even when he lightens up.
“If it Takes a Lifetime” opens the record with a man determined to make the most of a second chance. “I don’t keep liquor here; never cared for wine or beer. And workin’ for the county keeps me pissin’ clear.” It’s a perfect jumping-off point for a follow-up album with a high bar to meet.
“Flagship” packs an album’s worth of tenderness and romance into four minutes, and may be Isbell’s best love song. With its acoustic arrangement and his sweet voice, it’s one you’ll want to hit “repeat” on.
Isbell delves into characters with a level of introspection and incisiveness most writers can’t even contemplate. And with the impending arrival of his first child with wife Amanda Shires, it’s not surprising he takes a couple cracks at the parenthood thing.
“Children of Children” is a sobering look at the topic. Isbell – born when his own mother was 15 – neatly divides the song in two. The first half could be Harvest-era Neil Young acoustic, with a money line: “I was riding on my mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn. All the years I took from her, just by being born.” It’s punctuated by an instrumental back half that’s both sweeping and orchestral.
“Speed Trap Town” sees a guy who’ll say a final goodbye to an ICU-bound father before leaving for good. “He was a tough state trooper till a decade back, till a girl who wasn’t mama caused his heart attack. He didn’t care about us when he was walking around; just pullin’ over women in a speed trap town.” Lord.
There are dozens of intense couplets like that all over the record; about, in other words, what you’d expect from a songwriting mensch who’s hit such a stride it’s hard to imagine an upper limit.
Isbell has one-upped himself again, this time with an album that actually lets you breathe a little. The opening song’s character vows to “keep my spirits high…find happiness by and by, if it takes a lifetime.” Not unlike, it seems, the artist has.
Something More Than Free is available Friday (July 17, 2015) EVERYWHERE.
Below, you'll find the two lyric videos Isbell has released for SMTF thus far.