There are few songwriters who so deftly capture the authentic American spirit like Jason Isbell. His 2013 tour de force record Southeastern was like a rebirth for him, as he was embarking on a new adventure, clean and sober after a long struggle with addiction. Isbell broke our hearts with Southeastern, penning songs about love and loss that felt deeply personal and intimate. With the highly anticipated follow up record Something More Than Free, Isbell fans will discover a different side of him that’s still smart and poignant, but a tad lighter. Isbell’s still battling demons, but he’s doing so with a hopeful nod toward the future, and sweet nostalgia for the past.
Something More Than Free, like Southeastern, is a true country record, but rather than a heartfelt journalistic feel, it listens like a deep Southern novel, reminiscent of writers like Larry Brown or M.O. Walsh. And we’re never quite sure what’s autobiographical. Isbell is a Southern man through and through, and he is so skilled at pegging the unique details of the lifestyle he’s known all his life. Isbell’s soft, but strong voice is thoughtfully raspy when he belts out the chorus on songs like “How to Forget” and “The Life You Chose”, both troubled revisits to old, doomed relationships with women who left their mark.
Even when he’s singing about a universal American feeling, like small town confinement, Isbell adds an unmistakable Southern nuance that feels so specifically of a place and time. The standout gem of the album, titled “Speed Trap Town”, is a stellar example of this. As if crafting a short story, Isbell narrates from the perspective of a young man, full of resentment and desperate not to repeat the mistakes of his old man. Yearning for something more than his little Southern town can contain, and exhausting a place so fully, leaving is necessary for survival. He sings of drinking away misery at a football game, the early stages of manhood and the last breaths of boyhood, and the deep-seated fear of leaving it all in the dust. He leaves you rooting for his protagonist, and when he finally breaks away “a thousand miles away from that speed trap town,” you’re filled with a sense of relief.
“Flagship” is one of Something More Than Free’s sole sweet spots. It’s a tender love song about maintaining a relationship for the long haul, and never growing tired of one another, no matter what’s needed to preserve the spark. It’s filled with Isbell’s poetic prose, and the soft “oohs” and guitar melody will make your eyes swell with tears. “The couple in the corner of the bar/Have traveled light and clearly traveled far/She’s got nothing left to learn about his heart/And they’re sittin’ there a thousand miles apart,” he sings. “Baby let’s not ever get that way,” he repeats throughout, amidst elegant metaphors such as likening a hotel to a washed up beauty queen, and finally imparting his own hard-learned wisdom: “You gotta try to keep yourself naïve/In spite of all the evidence believed.” When wife (and talented singer-songwriter) Amanda Shires shows up in the harmonies, it’s pure bliss.
Isbell continues to explore dark territory, particularly with the brilliant throwback “Children of Children”, an almost Neil Young, folksy Americana song about the perils of selfishness and immaturity in adulthood. This one will knock you flat out with its vivid observations of life. “I was ridin’ on my mother’s hip/She was shorter than the corn/And all the years I took from her/Just by being born,” he sings in long, drawn out notes that echo with a big, epic sound that contrasts with the earthy acoustic guitar, before giving way to a hypnotic electric guitar solo finale. Isbell taps into the experience of history repeating itself so smartly, and so painfully.
“If It Takes a Lifetime”, title track, and “Palmetto Rose” find Isbell delving into the banalities of everyday Red State life, emphasizing a profound understanding of his own roots. “Hudson Commodore”, “To a Band That I Loved” and “24 Frames” play out like memoirs, and hearing them will leave you wishing Isbell would write one.
Something More Than Free is a strong addition to Isbell’s already impressive canon, and if it doesn’t immediately grab you, trust that it will. It will continue to sink in deeper and deeper with repeated listens and you’ll realize how much more he has left to say as he, now on the brink of fatherhood, continues to grow and flourish as a more defined artist.
Photo by David McClister