When Jason Isbell released Southeastern in 2013, it was clear he was making a statement. He wasn’t here to sing songs full of tired tropes about girls in cutoffs and booze cruising in pickup trucks. His songs ran far deeper and just about everyone took notice. Isbell is that rare artist that can seamlessly bridge the gap between the past and present, turning country music on its side and showing us what it can be, while paying due respect to what it once was. His music is never watered down, never vapid or silly. It is pure, authentic and wholly true to who he is. And though he’s been playing with his incredible band the 400 Unit for years, his last two records have been billed as solo outings. Perhaps this was what he needed to reinvent himself as an artist, but in 2017, he is continuing to evolve.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit grace the cover of their newest record The Nashville Sound, and it is another strong statement from one of country music’s most powerful voices – maybe Isbell’s strongest one yet.
Isbell’s soft rasp has just the right amount of grit to beautifully contrast with the clarity of his songwriting. And his songwriting is something to behold. With each listen to any of his songs, you’ll discover something new. The songs on The Nashville Sound are so intricate and detailed they garner countless repeat listens.
Isbell grapples with anxiety over the state of the world, fatherhood, marriage, his past, his future and racial politics. And Isbell doesn’t mince words. He is proof that country music and a conservative, right wing point of view do not go hand in hand. “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues/I’ve sang enough about myself/So if you’re lookin’ for some bad news/You can find it somewhere else/Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fightin’ with you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road,” he sings on the fiery country rocker “Hope the High Road.” It’s the kind of song that has the potential to unite us when we’re broken as all hell.
Similarly “White Man’s World” finds Isbell confronting not only his own racial privilege, but also his male privilege. It’s a stunning identity crisis that intelligently pushes the boundaries of our comfort zones. “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound/But they’re never gonna let her,” he sings. That mama he speaks of is his wife and mother to their daughter, Amanda Shires, who joins the 400 Unit with her gorgeous fiddle playing and harmonies. Isbell pays tribute to the love of his life many times on The Nashville Sound, most notably on “If We Were Vampires.” It’s a dreamy, haunting tune about finding love a little later in life and staring mortality in the face as you realize we all have an expiration date. Though it is sonically delicate, it is a gut punch that may bring you straight to tears.
“Tupelo” is a clever, dark entry about the seemingly never-ending attempt to escape personal demons. Whether autobiographical or not, Isbell has a knack for capturing what it feels like to hit rock bottom and making it sound so damn pretty. “Cumberland Gap” and “Anxiety” are two of The Nashville Sound’s gloomiest, but also some of Isbell’s most impressive vocal feats to date. Both are explosive and urgent, like their subject matter: being stuck, feeling hopeless. And on both, his band rocks out with the kind of abandon that inspires a good head-bang.
As with Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free, you will feel yourself being hypnotized by The Nashville Sound’s quieter moments. “Chaos and Clothes” is a major departure for Isbell and his band, with its hushed Elliott Smith-like harmony and lovely melancholy. And “Last of My Kind” may be the one that sticks with you the longest. In it, Isbell longs for the past, filling each note with such sweet nostalgia, you will be transported, becoming a fly on the wall of his childhood home. Isbell’s poetic lyricism hits its high point with this song, as he wonders about the state of humanity, the rarity of kindness and compassion, and the fading to black of a simpler time. It is sure to be in heavy rotation for quite some time – a song you will revisit again and again, like a favorite book or a beloved photograph. In many ways, it sums up Isbell as an artist and his impact on the country music genre. We know where it’s been, and thanks to artists like Jason Isbell, we know there’s hope for where it’s headed.