Album Of The Week: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit The Nashville Sound
Jason Isbell seems like the sort of person who looks you in the eye when he talks to you. In his songs, Isbell says exactly what he means. There’s no artifice in his lyrics — but that’s not to say those lyrics aren’t artful. They’re plenty artful. They’re tough and economical and full of empathy. But you always know exactly what he’s saying. There’s never any guesswork involved. He takes these vast, world-eating sentiments and boils them down to as few words as possible — makes them sound like the sort of things you might hear someone say at a bar, late at night, when he’s had maybe one too many drinks. He doesn’t exaggerate, doesn’t overstate, doesn’t use flowery language. And so when Isbell sings about being afraid to raise a daughter in Donald Trump’s America, it doesn’t come across as alarmist hyperbole. It comes across as something very, very real, and it’s a whole lot scarier for it.
The song in question is “White Man’s World,” and it comes from The Nashville Sound, the new album that Isbell recorded with his band the 400 Unit. The song is a seething, boiling blues-rock vamp, a song that sounds like neon beer signs and dark wood panelling and lonely video-poker machines that nobody really plays anymore. Here’s how he opens it: “I’m a white man living in a white man’s world / Under our roof is a baby girl / I thought the world could be hers someday / But her mama knew better.” The rest of the song is full of quiet little stories like that, stories of unexamined privilege and moments of inaction that Isbell wishes he could take back. He knows he’s a beneficiary of centuries of oppression and exploitation. He’s been in the room when people told racist jokes, and he hasn’t said anything against them. And he’s seen the end result of that type of shit, the election that leaves those of us with kids wondering what sort of bullshit world we’re handing them. He pleas for empathy, for understanding: “You’re still breathing, it’s not too late / We’re all carrying one burden, sharing one fate.” And here’s how he ends it, with his wife Amanda Shires’ twangy tenor harmonizing with his big, booming baritone: “I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
Isbell’s personal songs aren’t always personal. He’s done great work by inhabiting characters, by exploring those characters’ dreams and frustrations and dilemmas. And he does that a few times on The Nashville Sound. There’s the out-of-work figure from the shut-down mining town on “Cumberland Gap,” the one who knows he won’t find work out of town but who can’t leave because he’s got family who wouldn’t be able to get along without him: “Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge / If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.” There’s the country transplant on “The Last Of My Kind,” living in a city and feeling deeply out of place: “Tried to go to college but I didn’t belong / Everything I said was either funny or wrong / Laughed at my boots and laughed at my jeans / Laughed when they gave me amphetamines.” There’s the man on the run in “Tupelo,” the one who’s looking for salvation in a girl and in another town, thinking he can outrun his demons but knowing, somewhere deep down, that all of his efforts are doomed.
When he’s singing those songs about other people, Isbell doesn’t sound any less sincere than he does when he’s singing about himself. A lot of that is the force of empathy in Isbell’s writing, the way he makes these characters’ feelings seem as real as his own. And a lot of that is in the pure aesthetic quality of the music. Isbell doesn’t make country music — not really, at least not as it’s currently understood — but he’s still a great country singer. His voice is big and ragged and tender and plainspoken. He never mumbles and he never swallows his words, and he can hit big, loud, emotive notes without being showy about it.
Isbell broke through with 2013’s Southeastern and kept the breakthrough going with 2015’s Something More Than Free. Those were both quieter, more intimate records than the ones Isbell had made previously, both with the Drive-By Truckers, the band he’d joined in his early 20s, and then on his own, once he’d left the Truckers. But The Nashville Sound is Isbell’s first album since 2011 that gives equal billing to the 400 Unit, putting them on the cover next to him and everything, and it sounds more like a full-band album, with more rockers and more grand, swelling arrangements. I think I prefer Isbell in stripped-down mode, but he knows how to lead a band — something that really becomes obvious when you see him live, when he and his bandmates take turns on blazing solos that still serve the songs. And on record, he finds ways to flesh out his arrangements without losing their melodic or emotive punch. If you came on board with either of the last two albums, as I did, then there’s no reason to resist what he’s doing here, especially considering that the lyrics Isbell is writing here are among the finest of his career. And as great as those short-story songs can be, it’s the songs that Isbell sings from his own perspective that really knock me off my feet.
The Nashville Sound is the first album that Isbell has made since becoming a father last year, and fatherhood completely suffuses it. It’s an album made from the weird, blissful, paranoiac haze that comes with new parenthood. And it’s a case of Isbell using the fact of his fatherhood, the new perspective it gives him, as a way to look at the world. You can hear that clearly in “White Man’s World,” but it’s there on the rest of the album as well, even the songs that aren’t about parenthood directly. “Anxiety” is the state where you know your life is good but you can’t enjoy anything — you can’t even fucking sleep — because of the persistent feeling that it could all go away at any moment. Fatherhood doesn’t exactly stop that feeling. If anything, it makes it worse. “If We Were Vampires” is a love song to Isbell’s wife, sung in close harmony with Shires, and it’s about the dark feeling that a whole life lived with someone still isn’t enough: “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever / Likely, one of us will spend some days alone / Maybe we’ll get 40 years together / But one day I’ll be gone, or one day you’ll be gone.” Fatherhood doesn’t make that go away, either.
And then there’s “Something To Love,” the last song on the album. It’s the album’s most traditional country-folk song, and it’s about traditional country-folk stuff. On the song, Isbell sings about being a kid on a porch in the deep south, listening to the people in his family playing music together: “Old women harmonizing with the wind / Singing softly to the Savior like a friend.” And as the song gets ready to end, Isbell sings directly to his daughter, tells her why that memory matters to him and why it might matter to her: “You were born on a hot late summer day / We turned you loose and tried to stay out of your way / I don’t quite recognize the world that you’ll call home / Just find what makes you happy, girl, and do it till you’re gone.” Isbell first impressed many of us with the Drive-By Truckers 2003 song “Outfit,” a devastating reverie about heartfelt advice that he’d gotten from his father. And now, he’s ending an album with just-as-heartfelt advice for his daughter. And the ability to sing a line like that last one — to sing it without breaking, while still holding that metaphorical eye contact with whoever’s listening — is something truly special.
The Nashville Sound is out 6/16 on Isbell’s own Southeastern label. Stream it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Fleet Foxes’ ornate, elliptical comeback Crack-Up.
• Lorde’s neurosis-pop rock-out Melodrama.
• Ride’s shoegaze reunion Weather Diaries.
• 2 Chainz’ slick dad-joke fest Pretty Girls Like Trap Music.
• Kevin Morby’s sighing folk-rocker City Music.
• Palehound’s personal DIY opus A Place I’ll Always Go.
• Hundredth’s punk rock shoegaze zone-out Rare.
• Big Boi’s motormouthed, guest-heavy solo return Boomiverse.
• Beth Ditto’s slick-but-raw blues-pop solo debut Fake Sugar.
• Tombs’ misanthropic metal scuzz-out The Grand Annihilation.
• Showtime Goma’s dream-pop solo effort Smiley Face.
• The Drums’ shimmying indie-popper “Abysmal Thoughts”.
• B Boys’ melodic DIY shamble Dada.
• Mastodon prog-metal side project ARCADEA’s self-titled debut.
• Lost Balloons’ psychedelic garage-punker Hey Summer.
• Peaking Lights’ psych-pop double album The Fifth State Of Consciousness.
• Turtlenecked’s frantic art-rocker Vulture.
• Matthew Sweet’s well-practiced power-popper Tomorrow Forever.
• Com Truise’s gloopy, synthy Iteration.
• Sebadoh member Jason Loewenstein’s solo LP Spooky Action.
• Vince Mira’s drawling, dramatic El Radio.
• Steve Earle & The Dukes’ outlaw country revival So You Wannabe An Outlaw.
• Royal Trux’s live comeback album Platinum Tips + Ice Cream.
• Moor Mother and Mental Jewelry’s Crime Waves EP.
• Palm Shadow’s Shadow Expert EP.
• Bernice’s Puff EP.