Monday, August 10, 2015

Review: ‘Something More Than Free’ by Jason Isbell

An album that presents a lighter side of the talented Jason Isbell without ignoring the bleaker parts of his life.

By Barry Mazor
August 4, 2015

When I saw Jason Isbell perform in 2003, at Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, N.J., he was a young relative newcomer to the Drive-By Truckers, and had just contributed a pair of startlingly conceived and executed songs to the album “Decoration Day” by that smart and song-rich band of Alabama-raised alternative-country rockers. One was the title number, concerning multigenerational feuding families, one family being his own; the other was “Outfit,” based on cautioning yet encouraging life and career advice he’d received from his father, a working-class house painter. (“Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit . . . don’t worry about losing your accent.”)

In the course of the decade that followed, Mr. Isbell left that group, wrote new, rootsy, narrative yet melodic songs, some leaning toward rock, others more toward country or folk, and made new records, both solo and with his own accomplished band, the 400 Unit. (The band was named for a Muscle Shoals, Ala. area psychiatric ward.) He married, divorced and married again, had serious trouble with alcohol, and then worked to get and stay sober. All of that became ballad fodder for his acclaimed album of 2013, “Southeastern.” That sober and sobering look back garnered him Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and also Song of the Year (for “Cover Me Up,” his moving song about finally being ready for love), at the 2014 Americana Music Association Awards.
All along, he’s had considerable performing tools to work with—dramatic flair, vocal grace that conspicuously distinguishes his sound from roots-rock rasping, and guitar prowess to match. He’s got range. In recent months I’ve seen him and his band rivet a partying throng that sang right along with his “Southeastern” songs at the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival in Meridian, Miss., and a more sedate nightclub crowd respond to an acoustic duo show, performed with his wife, violin-playing singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, at Nashville’s City Winery. (They are expecting their first child in September.)
How the now much-appreciated Mr. Isbell would respond artistically to cheerier times has been an open question, but the question is answered by his new, fifth album, “Something More Than Free,” released July 17 on Southeastern/Thirty Tigers Records. He takes more advantage of his performance latitude and of his best melodic instincts, and has come up with an album at least as strong and engaging as his previous, much-lauded one.
The new songs do not swing in mood either to the perpetually sunny or the party-time side of the street, and they don’t simply shove his bleaker experiences aside. That “something more than free” of the album title implies “free of burdens” and, one suspects, “free of bad habits.” To the tired working man narrator of the title song, though, the phrase also suggests finding new appreciation and acceptance of “doing what I’m on this earth to do.” Mr. Isbell displays broader self-acceptance and a healthily creative new dynamic throughout this album. You sense that most in the sounds—and the way those sounds play against the lyrics, sometimes rough, sometimes sweet, always in league.
It is a record dominated by hooky guitar riffs, songs with earworm tunes, and arrangements that range from understated acoustic guitar picking to, at times, Wall of Sound-style orchestral rock from the 400 Unit. Dave Cobb, who produced Jason Isbell’s previous outing as well as recent, acclaimed albums by country adventurers Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, again produced. Mr. Isbell blatantly, even gleefully pays appropriating homage to such musical predecessors as Joe South, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen by picking up on and playing with their tunes, riffs and rhythms.
For example, the catchy first single, “24 Frames” (as in the frames for one second of motion-picture film), attaches the suggestion that, in some moods at least, God seems “something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow,” to jangling buoyant pop sounds reminiscent of R.E.M. or even, with the keyboards evoking bagpipes, of 1980s Scots roots rockers Big Country. “Flagship,” on the other hand, set off by a simple guitar strum throughout, considers a once-grand hotel, an old couple at the bar sitting “a thousand miles apart,” and arrives at an offhand thought that rises to a suggestion, even a vividly detailed promise: “Baby, lets not ever get that way.”
The song that may best capture how this gifted, always surprising songwriting singer sees things right now—aware of complex backstories true and false, letting the sounds used add to the sense, and loving both artists and art—is “Palmetto Rose.” The song observes and contemplates the “rose” bouquets woven from sweetgrass and long hawked to passing couples on the streets of Charleston, S.C. The track sounds like unadulterated old-school Southern blues rock, but then the catchy, very country chorus that kicks in seems derived from Jimmy Martin’s “20/20 Vision” bluegrass hit of the 1954, crossing race lines in a song that also recalls the slave trade. The legend long offered by the Charleston vendors, mainly enterprising African-American kids approaching white tourists, says that Palmetto roses were handed to Confederate soldiers leaving for the war as “everlasting” love tokens. Mr. Isbell dismisses that old tale as rubbish (a stronger term is employed), but what is saluted, unabashedly, is the authentic artistry and skill employed by the street kids in weaving those alleged history-laden keepsakes.
The artistry at work here makes this album instantly accessible, engaging, but also built to last—a smooth yet deep outing that proves, along the way, that Jason Isbell, who is now finding growing popular success, has the goods to be a James Taylor- or Paul Simon-level singing, songwriting star.
Mr. Mazor, author of “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music” (Chicago Review Press), writes about country and roots music for the Journal.

No comments: