Album Review: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound
By Kevin Broughton
Last year was a sonofabitch for nearly everyone we know.
-- Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”
A thought occurred to me while reviewing Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free a couple years ago: “At some point, you run out of superlatives.” So let’s get this out of the way. Right now, Isbell is without peer as a songwriter. He couldn’t have a better band – and God bless him for giving The 400 Unit billing on The Nashville Sound. Throw in a producer – Dave Cobb – who should just buy a gadget that makes Grammy figurines, and you have a legitimate American musical juggernaut.
And a quick word about the band. It’s proper that current 400 Unit – Sadler Vaden and Amanda Shires are newcomers since Here We Rest – gets a spot on the marquis. When the book is written on this band, this lineup will be viewed as the Mick Taylor-era Stones were.
There are several great songs on this record, bookended by a pair of wholesome ballads. “The Last of My Kind” is just another great story of an Isbell blue-collar guy, who wryly notes that some Scripture might only apply when back home. “Something to Love,” on the back end, is a sweet, hopeful homage to Isbell’s rural roots, a companion piece to his “God is a Working Man” on Brother Cobb’s Southern Family compilation.
More than one song recalls Isbell in his peak Drive By Truckers days. (And no, they’ll never be that good again, and were never better.) The driving intensity of “Cumberland Gap” captures the defiant malaise of Never Gonna Change, only in middle age. Here’s a guy who probably wishes he’d been thrown off the Wilson Dam.
If you’re looking for other perfect B-sides, how about “If We Were Vampires,” a sweet, morose counterweight to “Flagship,” till now Isbell’s most tender love song?
Sadly, the album is not as good as the sum of its parts. It’s a good but not great record, lacking the continuity and flow that made Isbell’s previous three studio offerings so compelling. Consequently the default focal point becomes the overtly political.
Have you ever thought about what a vile, racist country this is? This republic that twice elected a black man president, with solid popular and electoral majorities? No? You’re in luck, because Jason Isbell is here to beat you over the head with it. “White Man’s World” would be better titled “White-Guilt World.”
Granted, Isbell didn’t completely lose his mind the way his 50-something former band mates did last fall, stopping just short of pissing on Old Glory and renouncing their citizenship in a bid to curry favor with millennial piss-ants and Bernie Sanders-loving losers. One wonders, though, how many minds did they change? How many people came around to their cop-hating, white-guilt, socialist point of view because of DBT’s temper tantrum of an album? Likely none, though countless bedwetting, gender fluid NPR fans got enough affirmation to stave off being triggered for at least a day.
While Isbell employs a modicum of subtlety compared to Cooley and Hood, “White Man’s World” is still heavy handed. And lest you think blacks are the only oppressed people in this fascist nation: “I’m a white man living on a white man’s street, got the bones of the red man under my feet. Highway runs through their burial ground…”
Yeah. Step right up for self-flagellation, Cracker Boy. You will be made to care. And never mind that “red man” is way more than a microaggression.
You want privilege-checking? Got some of that, too. “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues, I’ve sang (sic) enough about myself” is our entry into “Hope the High Road,” an otherwise hopeful postmortem of the 2016 election. Oh, and “Anxiety” will be perfect fare for the “safe zones” (you know, where they exclude white people) on the campuses of Mizzou, Harvard, Brown, etc. It’s just flat-out whiny. The crybabies and victim-pimps will love it.
It’s a sad thing when music – something that should draw everyone together to admire it as art for art’s sake – is politicized. More than a couple of the artists I’ve interviewed for FTM have told me off-the-record why they avoid it. “You're 100 percent right about the music and politics thing,” one told me recently. “I've worked really hard not to do that. The only thing that can come from that is that you piss off half of your fan base. And you won’t change anyone’s mind.” Indeed. But those on the Left seemed determined to politicize every aspect of American life and culture, as we’ve seen happen in the world of sports over the past few years.
Will Isbell lose some fans? A few. Not this one, who hopes it’s a one-off. Still, look for plaudits from all corners: “Jason Isbell courageously speaks his mind.” Yep. Takes a ton of courage to toe the Leftist line in song.
Ultimately, though, if you can do this, you can do anything you want. Nice record, Jason. Wish it were better.
The Nashville Sound will be available everywhere this Friday.