You can stop asking Jason Isbell about the pressure to follow up Southeastern. He doesn’t feel any. That’s because, two years later, he’s releasing an album that’s even better than his critically acclaimed breakout. Southeastern was Isbell’s first album as a sober man; Something More Than Free is the triumphant proof that he doesn’t need old demons to fuel his devastating, deft songwriting. Which isn’t to say there aren’t dark and desolate moments on his new record. Isbell continues to work as a kind of Southern Gothic songwriter, prophesying country-ballad sagas of pain, desire, and guilt. If Southeastern was a wound still bleeding, Something More Than Free is the beatific scar that’s formed since. He again worked with producer Dave Cobb along with his band the 400 Unit, but this time Isbell was also joined by his wife Amanda Shires, a musician in her own right, on nearly every track. There’s a power and grace coursing through this record that only existed in fledgling form on Southeastern. Isbell continues to grapple with life’s heartaches, but he’s coming at them from a different angle. Healing sounds different than bleeding.
Isbell announced his new record by releasing “24 Frames,” a song more akin to indie rock than anything he’s ever done. But an early, live studio version reveals the song’s country backbone, and its lyrics are filled with spiritual commentary so staggering you’ll have to sit down. The only other songwriter who is wise, clever, and empathetic enough to mention in the same breath as Isbell, at this point, is John Prine. Many mention them together, and assuredly, will continue to do so after this record. Shires often opens up shows for Prine, sometimes joined by Isbell, and the couple is lucky enough to count Prine as a friend. That’s not the only way they’re lucky: they were married after Isbell got sober and are expecting their first child in just a few months. Isbell’s redemption arc has become something of a myth itself at this point.
After Isbell’s issues with alcohol led to his unceremonious dismissal from the Drive-By Truckers lineup, Shires, Ryan Adams, and manager Traci Thomas got Isbell into rehab. He emerged and self-released Southeastern to near-universal critical praise, along with pretty decent sales. The mythology of his recovery became so synonymous with the success of Southeastern, some people seemed to think the story stopped there. (Or began there — if you haven’t heard “Dress Blues” off his 2007 solo debut, go listen to it immediately.) It didn’t and doesn’t end there, and Something More Than Free is only the first example of that. As Isbell looks to the future, his philosophy seems to approximate that C.S. Lewis-penned aphorism: further up, further in. I spoke with Isbell about the possibilities of facing down past darkness, falling in love, fatherhood, and, of course, music. Or as he likes to call it, “working the machines.” Read our conversation below.
STEREOGUM: “24 Frames” was the first single for the new album, and a line on that song continues to stick with me, weeks later: “You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Can you unpack that a little? It’s devastating, almost Old Testament in a way.
ISBELL: It sounds like you got it figured out, you don’t need me. [Laughs] When somebody asks me what a song or a line is about, I feel like I’m not done writing it yet. That’s true, though; that’s why it’s the chorus — I felt like that was the most insightful line in the song. It’s about having control and assuming that you have control over the things that go on in your life … and you know, you really don’t. You don’t have any kind of control ultimately. Things are just going to happen as they will. And I think your best option sometimes is just to react, rather than try to plan everything out in advance.
STEREOGUM: I was reading an old interview with you in which you said when you think of your listener, you envision an “intelligent stranger.” What would that listener take away from this record?
ISBELL: I think it should be heard as a record of events, because I am trying to document a part of my life. The good thing about songwriting is you don’t have to delineate between what’s true and what’s fiction; records aren’t put on the shelf that way. Books are, movies are, but records aren’t. Even using untrustworthy narrators, something that I just flat-out made up, I’m still attempting to explain the world to myself. I would hope that my ideal listener would come away with at least a little bit of insight and probably the enjoyment that you get from hearing machines being worked in the right way. Good sounds, they just make you feel good. If the lyrics make you stop and pause the song for a minute — like when you’re reading a novel and you have to sit down and think about what you just read and digest it — then I think it’s been done right.
STEREOGUM: What is the significance of the album’s title for you?
ISBELL: It seemed to be a good point of reference for the sort of life that I have now. Freedom is a means to an end. Very often you hear people putting so much emphasis on having the freedom to choose, and living the lives that they want. And I understand that I have been very fortunate to be born into certain circumstances that allow me to do whatever I want to do, for the most part. But freedom can also be enough rope by which to hang yourself. I went through a long period of time where I didn’t have to answer to anybody, so I made a lot big mistakes: things that I don’t necessarily regret now — because I learned from them — but I overdosed on that freedom for a while. I think as you get older, if you mature and grow in the right way, then eventually you realize it’s not really freedom that you’re fighting for. It’s what that freedom can get you. It’s freedom combined with the ability to make good decisions and align your priorities correctly. The ability to make those decisions is a privilege that not everybody has.
STEREOGUM: You’re someone who talks pretty candidly about past humiliations. How do you get the strength to face down old, dark memories? How do you remain so hopeful on this album?
ISBELL: I’m in a great place in my life. I was raised right. I have a family that I’m very close to and my own family that I’m starting now. My wife is going to have a baby in a couple of months. Right now, it’s hard for me to get in touch with the darkness, to tell you the truth. I know people who have real problems, I think that’s the key. I have so many people ask me — and I appreciate you not asking me this — the first question they ask is, “Did you feel pressure to follow up Southeastern?” That same question every damn time! No, that’s not an actual problem to have. I know people who can’t pay their fucking bills. Following up a successful piece of work with another piece of work is the most ridiculous first-world problem I can think of. The way I keep myself hopeful is by not losing touch with folks who have to struggle sometimes. If you do enough of that, and you look at it from their point of view, it’s really hard to be sad.
STEREOGUM: I think this album is better than Southeastern, which is why I didn’t ask that! Parts of this record are jubilant and it’s so beautiful. For people who have been through some shit, it’s like, “If he can do it maybe I can be happy, too.”
ISBELL: Perspective is so important when you’ve been through bad things or when you’ve done bad things. First you have to figure out a way to get out from under that feeling of shame. That’s the worst, because you can’t fix anything if you’re still feeling like you brought everything on yourself. You have to figure out how to get out from under that. Then, you start looking around you and paying attention to other people and counting the things in your life that are actually going pretty well, instead of counting the things that are going wrong. To me that was a huge turning point, and it’s made my work better too.
STEREOGUM: On “How To Forget” you say: “My past a scary movie / I watched and fell asleep.” Do you think of it as a different person’s story, or yourself as different now?
ISBELL: I am different now. I’m closer to who I was when I was a kid, or when I was a teenager. I strayed from that path for a while. Now, looking back on those things, I realize that they happened through me, or to me, or because of me. There are times when you wake up from that, when you don’t let yourself “go down the rabbit hole,” as my wife says. You come to the realization: That’s not me anymore. The only thing that truly matters is who I am now. That’s it; that’s all that matters. You can apologize and ask whoever or whatever for forgiveness, get whatever kind of justice or vengeance you think that you’re owed from people in your past, but nothing really matters except who you are right now, how you move forward. That’s what really makes the past seem more like a dream to me. I’m fully aware of the fact that all those things happened, and I use those things. Those memories are tools for me for a lot of different purposes. But when you come to the realization that it really doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what’s happened before right now, that gives you a lot of strength. That gives you a lot of power.
STEREOGUM: In another interview, you talked about Amanda, and you said, “I used to think only stupid people loved each other this much.” I loved that line so much, and it actually reminded me of my favorite song on the album, “Flagship.”
ISBELL: I thought it wasn’t for me. I thought I was one of those people whose loves would all be star-crossed. And in some ways I was dramatizing my life, like we do when we’re young — or when we’re drunk, either way, that’ll do it too. I always thought I’d never find somebody who satisfies me; I’d resigned myself to that. Because of that, I made a lot of the bad decisions that I made. I wouldn’t always tell people the truth. A lot of those things happened because I didn’t really have anything to lose. When I met Amanda it was funny because I simultaneously realized two things. One, just how many people there are in the world, odds are pretty good that you’re going to find somebody that works for you. But I also realized how fragile that discovery can be — that moment in time and how you can let it slip through your fingers if you’re not careful and you’re not tenacious.
One thing a good relationship does is make you feel like you have more in common with the rest of the people on the planet. It’s nice to realize that you’re not as different from everybody else as you thought you were. When you’re not in a relationship — when you’re not in a good one or when you’ve been lonely for a long time — you spend so much time thinking ‘Why are those people that way, they’ve gotta be idiots to be that happy. Surely, the reason I’m not happy is because I’m just too good for all of them.’ When something happens to make you feel differently, that’s when you learn something about yourself and about everybody else too.
STEREOGUM: And now that you are adding another person to that circle, too, what are you most looking forward to about being a dad?
ISBELL: Just having another friend. That’s the main thing. From what I hear, you’re never really closer to anybody than you are to your own child, so that’s the most exciting thing to me.
STEREOGUM: Since you both work in music, how do you guys keep your relationship separate from that? Or do you even want to?
ISBELL: No, we don’t. We don’t have a studio in the house, so we don’t record. That’s very important to me. I want it to seem like when I get into the studio to work, or when I get on the bus to work, that’s what that’s for. When I go home, it’s not for working, but I don’t see the music part of it as the work part. I gave up on separating those two a long time ago. So we talk about creativity with each other. We help each other edit, we help each other write. We play music together a lot. Everything else can be work. The writing all day, the sitting in the bus, the long hours in the studio — that can all be work. But the part that’s actually playing music is a lot more personal to me. I think if you look at the music part as work, then you wind up getting away from why you originally started playing music in the first place. I don’t want to make music because it makes me money. I don’t want to make music because it makes me more popular. I want to do it because it’s beautiful and I love to work the machines.
Something More Than Free is out this Friday 7/17 via Southeastern Records. Stream it below.