Album Of The Week: Jason Isbell Something More Than Free
Before we get into this week’s album, some housekeeping is in order. As Michael explored in last week’s column, Global Release Day is firmly in effect. Albums come out on Friday now, and we’re all just going to have to adjust. It’s the new reality. But as it turned out, many of our readers didn’t like the idea of the Album Of The Week column coming on Friday, when everyone is rushing to finish the work week and anyway we have a couple of other “best of the week” columns that always run. Well, we agree. Album Of The Week is coming back home to Tuesday, where it’ll stay. That makes things a bit messy, since the album you’re reading about won’t be out yet. Sometimes, it means we can’t give a full accounting of everything that’ll be out. This Friday, for example, Future’s DS2 album is coming out, and I am fully amped for that thing, but I haven’t heard it yet. Maybe if Epic’s press team was sending out promos, or if a stream was floating around out there, DS2 would be this week’s Album Of The Week. But I can’t write about an album I haven’t heard yet. Maybe I’ll write about DS2 in next week’s Status Ain’t Hood column, or maybe it’ll be a Premature Evaluation. And speaking of Premature Evaluations: This week sees the release of Tame Impala’s Currents. It’s a stunner of an album and one of the year’s best, but we’re not talking about it in this space because young classic rocker Ryan Leas already wrote about it beautifully in his Premature Evaluation. So: the AOTW distinction doesn’t go to Tame Impala or to Future this week, and now that you’ve read this paragraph, maybe you’ll think the album that does occupy this space is some distant runner-up. Not so. Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free is an absolutely lovely record, one that absolutely demands your attention.
I’m late to Jason Isbell. Maybe you are, too. I mostly knew Isbell as arguably the third-most-important songwriter in the Drive-By Truckers, a band I’d tried to care about without much success. (Isbell did write “Outfit,” one of the few Truckers songs I had an easy time loving, but that didn’t stop me from sleeping on him.) When Isbell and the Drive-By Truckers parted ways, I couldn’t find much reason to care about this guy’s solo career. And as Isbell started to build a serious buzz for himself, I stayed sleeping. Even when Isbell released 2013’s Southeastern, his critical and commercial breakthrough, I slept.
See, Isbell came from Americana. Every critic has her blind spots, and Americana is one of mine. The alt-country genre has produced a few obvious classics that I love — Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker chief among them — but the whole fetishization of old-timey country-music values is the sort of thing that turns me off in a visceral way. Americana, as I’ve always seen it, defines itself more as what it isn’t than what it is. It exists in opposition to bright, gleaming, calculated Nashville assembly-line country, and it appeals to what I see as a sort of manufactured authenticity that’s as much a pose as, say, Toby Keith’s down-home asshole hickery. And since I love a lot of gleaming, manufactured Nashville country, I felt like battle lines were drawn, and I had to pick my side — like Americana was country’s equivalent to backpack rap and I’d made the decision to throw in with the Soulja Boys instead of the Talib Kwelis. But that’s crap, and I’m embarrassed that I kept my head in the sand for so long. There’s good and bad in every musical genre, Americana (and backpack-rap) very much included. And Isbell’s new album is so obviously good that I can’t maintain that narrowminded resistance anymore. It’s not just a good album. It’s an album so good that I now have to rethink my opinion of an entire genre.
This is all an extremely long-winded way to say that, because I’d been so completely ignorant of this guy’s work in the past, Something More Than Free came through and fucked my whole shit up. Among aficionados, Isbell is known as maybe the greatest lyricist in Americana. But Something More Than Free would sound great even if you didn’t speak English. Isbell is an utterly confident musician, the sort of vocalist who can sell a the emotion of a song so naturally that you almost can’t see the craft at work in what he’s doing. His voice is a heavy, conversational baritone with a deep Alabama twang to it. He’s mostly singing from the perspective of characters, go-nowhere working-class drunks who may be trying to imagine a way out and who may not even be able to contemplate that possibility. And so he sounds haggard and ground-down. That weariness never seems like a theatrical put-on, the way it does when various junior Springsteens try it. Instead, it just sounds natural. He’s singing about being tired, and he sounds tired. It makes sense. But for all that heaviness, he still finds a barrel-chested strength when he hits every last one of his choruses.
Producer Dave Cobb, who also handled Southeastern, arranges these songs delicately so that they’ll swell up just when that voice is gathering steam. (Side note on Southeastern: You guys were right. It’s great.) The arrangements don’t feel contrived or throwbacky. They draw on country and folk, but there’s also a primal, wounded Southern rock quality, one that takes a few different forms. The 400 Unit, Isbell’s band, can do backwoods blues-rock like Lynryd Skynyrd, and you can hear that in the despondent guitar leads on “Speed Trap Town.” But they can also jangle like R.E.M., and you can hear that on “24 Frames.” Isbell’s wife, the violinist Amanda Shires, plays all over the album, and there’s a lonely heaviness in her playing that pairs beautifully with Isbell’s voice. But Cobb also surrounds him, from time to time with a full string section (or with a Mellotron that approximates one), and that lends Isbell’s songs a stately grandeur.
That contrast, between everyday-life drudgery and longing for transcendence, is all over Isbell’s lyrics, too. The songs on Something More Than Free are quick and deft characters sketches — sometimes written from Isbell’s own perspective, sometimes not. Plenty of shitty songwriters have made hackneyed work of the whole struggling-small-town-folk subject, and that’s what Isbell’s writing about. But he never falls into any cliched traps. Instead, he writes with a pointed and specific economy, letting you know everything you need to know about his characters with a few carefully worded lines: “It’s a Thursday night, but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name.” And Isbell’s got a powerful empathy to his writing, too. Sometimes, it’s enough to knock me out. Isbell’s mother was 15 when she had him, and “Children Of Children” is a song about the emotional weight of growing up with young parents: “I was riding on my mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn / And all the years I took from her, just by being born.” And even when he’s not writing about anything as emotionally loaded as that, he’s sharp and clear-headed: “I’m learning how to be alone / I fall asleep with the TV on / And I fight the urge to live inside my telephone.”
Something More Than Free isn’t a perfect album. It’s front-loaded, and not every song connects. The familial history lesson of “Hudson Commodore” feels more remote than the present-day stuff, and I could’ve done without the watery bar-rock flourishes of “Palmetto Rose.” But the album works more often than not. And when it does work, it can be enough to kick you in the chest. “Flagship,” the one straight-up love song on the album, is maybe the perfect example. Isbell’s narrator is staying with a girl in a rundown hotel, watching all the other customers there. He’s watching unhappy couples, begging the woman in his wife to promise that that won’t ever be them. He ruminates on old memories, on the happiest moments of the couple’s past. And then, when he comes to an epiphany, it feels universal because he’s laid all that groundwork, built the story with all those minute and concrete details. It also feels universal because it is universal: “You gotta learn to keep yourself naive / In spite of all the evidence, believe / Volunteer to lose touch with the world / And focus on one solitary girl.” It’s good advice, and it’s also the sort of moment that, if it hits you right, can upend whatever preconceptions you brought to an entire artist, or to an entire wing of music.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Tame Impala’s psychedelic studio-pop insta-classic Currents.
• Future’s probably-going-to-be-nasty-as-fuck DS2.
• Ratatat’s bleepy return Magnifique.
• Chemical Brothers’ guest-heavy dance opus Born In The Echoes.
• Iron & Wine and Ben Bridwell’s soft, soothing collaborative covers album Sing Into My Mouth.
• White Reaper’s fiery scuzz-rock debut White Reaper Does It Again.
• MS MR’s streamlined synthpopper How Does It Feel.
• Peacers’ ambling garage-psych debut.
• Flying Saucer Attack’s experimental comeback Instrumentals 2015.
• Bad Bad Hats’ crunchy, dreamy debut Psychic Reader.
• Samantha Crain’s heavy folker Under Branch & Thorn & Tree.
• Sean Henry’s layered, hypnotic It’s All About Me.
• Your Old Droog’s Nicest EP.
• Naps’ You Will Live In A Cool Box EP.
• Day Wave’s Headcase EP.
• Pictureplane’s Hyper Real: The Remixes EP.