I have an intrinsic personal relationship to Jason Isbell’s music. I associate with his stories, his memories, his politics, and, in a way, to his past demons. Analyzing where he fits in the milieu as a country rock star is hard. I can’t see clearly the zeitgeist forest for my own trees, as it were. On the closing cut (“Something to Love”) off his new album with his band The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, Isbell sings as he often does best, straight forward and elegantly:
“I was born in a tiny southern town
I grew up with all my family around
We made music on the porch on Sunday nights
Old men with old guitars, smoking Winston Lights.”
Lyrically, it’s the narrative specificity and reminiscent melody Isbell has become widely regarded for. It’s also oddly reminiscent of my own childhood, more or less. The walking of the fine line between the subjective and objective is what continues to be so engaging about Isbell, and has been across all six of his solo albums. It’s made him one of the most respected roots artists today. Harlan Howard famously said that a country song is “three chords and the truth.” Across all of his albums, Isbell has had the truth, or at least faced it down eye to eye, wrestling with what it might mean to him, his family, and his community.
Isbell is smart enough to wrestle with all of those honestly on The Nashville Sound, especially in loosely-political tracks like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road.” While these songs might take a half-step too close to platitude for my taste, they still land forcefully. The first is a smoke-room blues track Isbell wrote the day after last year’s presidential election. I features striking violin from another great country songwriter (and Isbell’s wife) Amanda Shires. Isbell makes reference to his wife throughout the song, invoking the album title around her own solo work. “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound,” he sings to his daughter, “but they’re never gonna let her,” exposing as much about the tight reins gripping the production of country music as the sexism embedded within it, and the nation as a whole.
Following “White Man’s World” is the tender ballad “If We Were Vampires.” At the time of the single’s release, Isbell mentioned he felt it was one of the best songs he’s written, and I have to agree. Should it get the radio play it deserves, it’s a standard in the making. It joins “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship” as Isbell’s most tender songs. It functions as a finger-picking acoustic tune, with Shires harmonizing vocals on the chorus. While it’s most certainly a love song, it’s reflective, with an eye forward to the realistic future all love shares. It’s all in the chorus:
“It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone”
That need to recognize the pain of life through its pleasantries is expanded the most on “Anxiety,” an epic full-band track dealing with all the chronic distresses of mental illness. It’s a little frank, but when talking about anxiety, being frank and honest about it is often the hardest thing to do. “I’m out here living in a fantasy / I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” It’s a propulsive song, building to several stops and starts, not unlike a Tom Petty song by way of Willie Nelson. Perhaps my favorite track, or the one I keep coming back to, is “Chaos and Clothes.” It’s the most divergent Isbell gets from his previous work, mainly due to the double-tracked vocals laid down over his quick acoustic guitar. The song is reportedly for Isbell’s friend Ryan Adams, a song of comfort about his recent divorce (though it may not be about that at all). Isbell often speaks through characters, or through merging stories with his own voice. “Last of My Kind,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Tupelo,” “Anxiety,” and “Molotov,” all do this, as do many (most) of his previous songs. It’s always striking, then, when Isbell sings as straightforward as himself as he can. “Chaos and Clothes,” feels like a letter to a friend over heartbreak, where many modern breakup songs can feel a little like iMessages.
I mentioned the always elusive zeitgeist earlier. Sometimes I think the attempts to grasp at a concrete zeitgeist are silly, convoluted exercises. Other times, it’s inescapable. But as a word, ‘zeitgeist’ is lovely. It’s German, loosely combining ‘zeit’ (time) and ‘geist’ (ghost). In this way, Isbell is capturing a zeitgeist; his songs reach back into time and lyric by lyric pull at the ghost of a people and places locked in time. “Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole,” he sings on the album’s loudest and rockiest number. And though Isbell belts it out over the force of the 400 Units propulsive jams, you might read it as a last sigh. Maybe the places we’re born eat us alive over the course of our lives, through memory or guilt or our quicksand ties to them. Sometimes we like it, and sometimes we don’t. Jason Isbell continues to understand this more than most any other songwriter today.
The Nashville Sound is out now from Southeastern Records.