Monday, July 20, 2015

album review: 'something more than free' by jason isbell

Okay, time for a confession: as much as I can look back on my year-end lists with a certain amount of pride - the amount of work that's demanded for them is huge, and I always love the reception - they're never perfect. Like it or not, I'm only human and I doubt I could listen to or review every bit of music that's released throughout the course of the year, especially considering I still have a full-time job and other projects and the modicum of a social life here. As such, it's inevitable I'll miss something.

And given I've often advertised myself as the 'only country critic on YouTube' - which I can see is starting to slowly change a bit, much to my great satisfaction - the lack of a review for Jason Isbell's critically lauded Southeastern in 2013 stands out like a sore thumb for me. Formerly a member of the Drive-By Truckers before going solo, he teamed up with Dave Cobb for a quiet, understated, incredibly well-written and powerful album that had a level of detail and poignancy that's rarely matched - and if there's an album that would have had a shot at overtaking one of the spots on my year-end list for 2013, Southeastern would have been it. It's not perfect - as much as I think 'Live Oak' and 'Elephant' and 'Yvette' are fantastic, they have to counterbalance the tonal whiplash of 'Super 8', and that's a tough balance - but it would have been close.

And though Jason Isbell has been lauded in the country scene for over a decade now as a fantastic songwriter, Southeastern won him more attention than ever. There were even reports that The Voice had tried to recruit him as a contestant, which he wisely declined, instead working on a new solo project Something More Than Free. So while of course I'm going to cover it now, part of it almost feels like penance for shortchanging Isbell in 2013 by missing Southeastern - penance I'm more than happy to do, especially if this album is as good. So, is it?

Well, almost to no surprise it's excellent - and really, it's the sort of record that's so damn consistently strong that it's hard to really criticize. Does it have the gut-punch moments of Southeastern? No, obviously not, but I'd argue the moments of emotional pathos are still here, just presented in a subtler way. One thing's for damn sure: it's easily one of the best country albums you'll hear this year in terms of the writing, performance, and even the instrumentation and production, which is more even and does show off more experimental subtleties that I found to be a real pleasant surprise.

Because here's the thing: as much as I love Dave Cobb as a country producer, I've oddly found much of his work with Jason Isbell a little lacking. Nothing terrible, but it always feels a little lacking in the grit or swell that he provided to Lucette or Sturgill Simpson. Certainly not bad - he runs circles around most of his mainstream contemporaries - but it always feels like the textures are a little too burnished and sanded back to really give Isbell the punch he needs. Sure, I'm not going to deny that the layering and melodic interplay on a song like 'If It Takes a Lifetime' is great, but for some of the electric guitar, it doesn't quite have the ragged edge that fiddle tone would demand for punch. And sure, there are points where this works: the gentle mid-tempo balance of 'How To Forget' augmented with the supple bassline and pianos, the stripped back acoustic nature of 'Flagship', the waves of strings supplementing 'The Life You Chose', but I can definitely see where some would argue it doesn't have the ragged, immediate punch of Isbell's earlier work. But things get significantly more interesting if you dig deeper - the squealing electric melody punctuating the great chorus on '24 Frames', the ragged violin punctuating the thicker guitar lick and piano on the title track, the brittle acoustic elements of 'Speed Trap Town' that bleed into a grimy solo, and the progressive haze and stellar instrumental outro with those cacophonous drums, strings, and howling guitar on album centerpiece 'Children Of Children' that fields like if Steven Wilson ever made a country song and it was awesome in every way, shape, and form. Hell, the album even picks up some lo-fi heaviness as the album continues, with the roiling organs and strings fragments on the Charleston tribute 'Palmetto Rose' or the lo-fi swell that built off of a creaking acoustic guitar with hints of fiddle on 'To A Band That I Loved', which is honestly such a solid fit that I do kind of get why people would want more of it, especially as the piano melody rings through.

But here's the one thing I thing enhances that rougher feel that I think is going unnoticed: Jason Isbell himself. The guy has always been a solid and expressive country singer, but it's often been said he sounds better live than on record because he throws so much more of himself into his material. And what Dave Cobb does in the vocal production is subtle but definitely potent: the vocal pickup is just a hint rougher, with the echo placed just close enough to give it the illusion of a live microphone. And where it gets interesting is that depending on the amount of edge the song filters through, Cobb sharpens or softens that microphone pickup and it sounds strikingly organic in the best way possible.

But that's the production nerd in me coming out, let's talk the element everyone loves when discussing Isbell: the songwriting. I shouldn't even have to talk about the technical elements here: the guy is a master of constructing intricate meter with grace and cadence to draw emphasis exactly where it needs at the right moments, especially on choruses like 'The Life You Chose' and '24 Frames'. And the man has a knack for detail-rich songwriting and framing that doesn't shy away from highlighting his own weakness and human frailties. It was one of the biggest reasons why Southeastern was so powerful: the wounds had healed but the scars were vivid, and can you really move on knowing they remained. Something More Than Free sets more distance between Isbell and his past... and this time, it seems like said past is catching up in ways he never would have imagined. Some could make the argument that it renders the drama distant, with Isbell always the observer, but the key difference between the writing here and, say, on Jack White's last record Lazaretto is that Isbell was always the primary agent of action in the past. This is a record that comes with peeling through faded photographs and old regrets, either his own or the characters that he sketches - and thus it works that these aren't so much fully formed stories but snapshots, memories that seem to flicker or fade as time passes on. 

And what I really love is the dimension to these pictures, whether it be the small town where Isbell could have landed if things had run sour on tracks like 'If It Takes A Lifetime' or the struggle to hold a dream of better things on the title track. That same commitment to detail also appears on 'Speed Trap Town', which tosses out one of the most poignant lyrics about high school sports I've ever heard: 'it's a boy last dream and a man's first loss'. The loneliness of the song resonates so powerfully as he reflects on a neglectful father figure who represents the toxic stagnation that Isbell knows he needs to leave. But it's not always his step in that direction, as tracks like 'Flagship' sees him watching a couple whose love has soured at a hotel bar and he realizes he can never let that happen to his current relationship... although his choice to sacrifice his dreams might prove sadly ironic if it leads to losing something far more precious, which plays out in heartbreaking detail on the divorce song of '24 Frames', the consequences of losing that love. And when that figure comes back on 'How To Forget', a person who knew Isbell's past and darkest moments, he realizes there are things in the past worth leaving behind, even as the temptation to know more lingers on 'The Life You Chose'. This is an album making peace with the past, from the faded photographs on 'Children Of Children' where he now expects a child having reached a stable place in his life in contrast to the generations that came before, to the single mother who simply wanted to drive free having never needed the pity of any man, to the break-up of alt-country Centro-Matic on 'To A Band That I Loved'. And the stark parallelism of that song adds another layer of poignancy, as Isbell watches the band that reinvigorated his muse and his choice to carry the mantle, still trying to find his part and knowing it might just give whatever sparse crowd is left the same muse.

In other words, Something More Than Free is transitional, but not in the way most critics like me use the word as a stop-gap moment between two different sounds - although I would argue there's a bit of that too. Quite literally, this is Isbell closing the door on his past, the darkness and insecurities he no longer revisits in the same way. And sure, you could argue that it doesn't quite have the darkness and drama of Southeastern, but there's an air of finality to this record, the definitive closing of a chapter, that lends it real weight. Coupled with production that captures that damn near perfectly and fragments of what his new sound could evolve into, I absolutely love this album. Easily one of the best records of this year, it gets a 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, I will stress this is the sort of record that'll take time to grow, but if you do, Jason Isbell will give you something more than free, and definitely worth cherishing for it.

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