Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Reunions

In the months ahead, a whole lot of men are going to hide their faces from their families when they hear “Letting You Go.” They’re going to be driving their cars, or washing dishes, or reading books in their living room in the hour before the kids go to bed. They’re going to do everything they can do to keep their kids from seeing them cry. “Letting You Go” is going to sneak up on these men when they aren’t ready for it, and it’s going to stomp right on their souls. It’s going to be tough. To those men, I say: Proceed with caution. Or, better yet, just say fuck it and let the tears flow. You won’t be alone.

“Letting You Go” is the last song on Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s new album Reunions, and it’s a classic throat-lumper. On “Letting You Go,” a father sings to a daughter. He starts it off with the story about leaving the hospital, getting some help buckling the baby seat into the car — perhaps the first true visceral headfuck moment that most new fathers experience. He sings with a sappy and heartfelt grace about what she means to him: “Being your daddy comes natural/ The roses just know how to grow/ It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going, but the hard part is letting you go.”

On the last verse of the song, we get the twist: “Now you’ve decided to be someone’s wife/ We’ll walk own the aisle, and I’ll give you away.” Jason Isbell is the father of a daughter, but Isbell’s daughter is about four years old. She is not, as far as I know, about to marry anyone. So “Letting You Go” is fiction. Isbell isn’t singing the song from his own perspective — or, at least, not from his own current perspective. He is doing what fiction writers do. He is putting a character in a situation, and he is imagining how that situation might feel.

Jason Isbell has always written characters into his songs: The woman dying of cancer on “Elephant,” the drunk at the high-school football game on “Speed Trap Town,” the country kid feeling out-of-place at college on “The Last Of My Kind.” But the best thing about Isbell’s characters is that Isbell’s characters are still him. It’s not just that it’s easy to confuse the songs where Isbell is singing about himself with the songs where he’s singing about people who he made up. He’s always singing about himself, even when he’s not. He’s always able to come up with the empathy that he needs, to imagine himself occupying another person’s life. It’s what makes him a great writer.

“Well, I made three good records in a row.” That’s Isbell in GQ, talking about the kind of pressure he was putting on himself when he was making Reunions. (Isbell has made more than three records since leaving the Drive-By Truckers, but just about everyone agrees that 2013’s Southeastern was the moment when he truly rose up and became something special.) In that GQ piece, Isbell explains to the writer, my friend Zach Baron, that Reunions is an album about ghosts. I see what he’s saying, but that’s not what I hear. I hear Reunions as an album about the struggle to stay functional in an insane world, and to be a good person. That’s in there whether or not Isbell is singing about himself. It’s just as important as the ghosts.

Most of the songs on Reunions are, as far as I can tell, Isbell singing about himself. Isbell got sober years ago, and “It Gets Easier” might be his most plainspoken song yet about working to stay that way: Dreaming about the taste of whiskey, driving wistfully past bars and wishing a cop would pull him over, understanding that he can’t expect his wife to give up the same things that he’s given up. (David Crosby, patron saint of reformed roots-rock hellraisers, sings backup on the album.) “What’ve I Done To Help” is explicitly about feeling guilty when your family is OK and so many other people aren’t. On “Only Children,” Isbell sings to a dead friend who didn’t get to escape the small town where they both grew up.

When Isbell is singing about himself, his writing still crushes. On “Only Children,” Isbell tells his late friend, “Heaven’s wasted on the dead/ That’s what your mama said/ And the hearse was idling in the parking lot.” And then: “She said you thought the world of me/ And you were glad to see/ They finally let me be an astronaut.” That’s elite shit: Heartfelt, economical, suspenseful enough to push you through to that devastating last word. You have to be an astronaut to write a line like that. Isbell is the type of writer who will open a song with a line like: “This used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out.” His pen game is out of control.

It’s that writing that always brings me back to Jason Isbell. As a singer, he’s got a big and chesty baritone that helps drive those sentiments home. As a bandleader, he’s a capable and expansive classic rocker. I tend to like Isbell’s countrified ballads the best. When he’s playing live, his big and driving rockers can be huge and electrifying. On record, at least for me, they tend to sit a little inert. (I know plenty of people who feel just the opposite. I suspect that Isbell himself prefers the rockers.) As a band, the 400 Unit is sharp and intuitive and road-tested. They clearly love playing together, and the songs are full of tiny little intricacies — a liquid guitar flourish here, a heart-ripping peal of fiddle there. Isbell knows how to write a melody, and Reunions would be a perfectly fine record even without those transcendent lyrics. But as a roots-rock agnostic — someone who could generally take or leave the genre — a lot of these songs might float right by me, if not for Isbell’s writing.

With that writing, though, we end up with something like “Letting You Go,” a song that will probably reduce me to puddles, whenever I hear it, for the rest of my life. And again: “Letting You Go” is fiction. So is “River,” where Isbell sings from the perspective of a murderer who’s staring at flowing water and imagining it carrying him to oblivion: “The river hears my secrets, things I cannot tell a soul/ Like the children that I’ve orphaned, and the fortune that I stole.” Likewise, “Dreamsicle,” one of the man’s all-time best songs, is Isbell singing from the perspective of a 14-year-old kid who can’t wait to escape his falling-apart family.

On “Dreamsicle,” Isbell once again shows that ability to convey a whole lot of information, emotional and otherwise, in a few sparse lines. Consider this: “Poison oak and poison ivy/ Dirty jokes that blew right by me/ Mama curling up beside me, crying to herself.” And then consider that he follows it with this: “Why can’t daddy just come home?/ Forget whatever he did wrong/ He’s in a hotel all alone, and we need help.” Forget about it. That wrecks me. That’s about as good as it gets. Reunions makes it four good records in a row. Let it fuck you up. And if you have to, let yourself cry in front of your family.

If you order it from an independent record store, Reunions is out now. Otherwise, the album is out 5/15 on Isbell’s own Southeastern label.

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