Monday, June 19, 2017

album review: 'the nashville sound' by jason isbell & the 400 unit

So as a general rule, I try to read a lot of music reviews after I finish mine, try to get a sense of the general discourse around a record and maybe for a little passive acknowledgement that I was at least on the right track when it came to my interpretations. And yet in 2015, I don’t think I read a review that missed the point harder than that of Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell – and if you know anything about that record’s critical reception, you all know exactly what publication put it out. Now on some level every critic is entitled to their opinion, and it's not like Jason Isbell makes easy music, especially in alternative country, so you can expect misinterpretations, but what I found a lot more exasperating was the assertion that since he was a left-leaning alternative country songwriter and a longtime veteran of a number of acts that his record should be speaking more to the social ills and issues of the time to have any sort of relevance, especially if it was as forward-looking as it was.

Now if you’ve heard Something More Than Free – and I highly recommend you do, it’s easily in my top five of the best records of 2015 – you’d know that wouldn’t remotely fit with the complicated and deeply personal thematic arcs underscoring the project, and that said projection was pretty damn short-sighted and ignorant. But then again, it’s not like said publication is known for its well-considered or well-articulated points on country music - and yet despite that, I get the impression Jason Isbell might have been listening. Granted, considering the current American political climate and the fact that Isbell was looking to kick some of the rock elements back in with the 400 Unit, that might have been inevitable, but he’s a canny enough artist to pivot when he needs to, or to make a point. Which, of course, said publication then called this album an one-note backslide in their review and called him more of a pop songwriter, even despite him doing exactly what they wanted, so maybe he shouldn’t have cared. Or maybe he doesn’t care at all and I shouldn’t either, and after all this is probably one of my most anticipated records of 2017, so fuck it: what did we get from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on The Nashville Sound?

So here's the thing: upon listening to this record a good dozen times, I actually can hear what that other publication's critic might have been referring to across this album, because in comparison with the more abstract, story-driven paintings that characterized so much of Southeastern and Something More Than Free, this album does indeed feel more direct in its storytelling, and certainly more aggressive. And I can see how that approach might be branded as more blunt, maybe even simplistic, and on the surface it might even be reminiscent of the haunting of the past that many would think Isbell put behind in him on the last record. Of course, with the acknowledgement of any sort of context, it all makes sense and showcases yet again why Isbell is one of the best in the industry, but if you're a critic for a highly 'respected' publication, why bother with necessary context on a distinctly political and personal record, right?

Okay, I'll stop with all of that, but the truth is that Jason Isbell occupies a distinctly unique place in modern country: a storyteller conscious of thematic arcs and the personal details that inform the writing, but also a man who is still reconciling a newfound family, personal anxieties and a sobriety that means he must confront them, and progressive ideals that might feel common for some of us but fly in the face of what many even in alternative country hold. That's one of the reasons why opening the record with 'Last Of My Kind' is such a potent choice: Isbell probably has more in common politically with those who live in coastal cities, but he's also acutely aware of how disquieting someone of his background might find that environment, where there isn't the same empathy and an embrace of reckless hedonism that can further tempt him. And so he highlights a very different kind of trap on 'Cumberland Gap', the sort of song cutting into the decay of small Appalachian towns that blends the very real desperation and fear that would inspire someone to vote a certain way, although Isbell's smart enough to cut back a few songs later with 'White Man's World', which calls to task that level of privilege with a bluntness you don't see in country music. And it's not a song seeking to shame for privilege, instead highlighting a responsibility to change and equalize that system, even if he knows that it's an uphill battle and one that his wife knows is unlikely to change - but for his infant daughter's sake, he's going to try. 

And that's something that needs to be called out here, the presence and context of that family, even if it's barely spoken. You get the distinct impression that Isbell never expected success or a stable family life - on 'Molotov' he describes a promise broken to himself to burn out strong, but instead he rides with his wife, and in the album centerpiece 'If We Were Vampires' takes gothic iconography to showcase the real possibility one will go before the other. To Isbell, there's a thematic correlation between love and death, if only through the risk of giving so much time to another, which is why he laments the collapse of Ryan Adams' marriage on 'Chaos And Clothes' in 2016, or the deeper core of frustration in 'Tupelo' at a relationship that didn't measure up to expectations if he got out at all, or especially the firebrand lit on 'Hope The High Road', highlighting a situation that can feel all the more volatile and unstable going forward, but Isbell's had enough of gravitating to angst and if this crazy ship is going down, he's going to fight every step of the way, if only for his family's sake. And make no mistake, for Isbell it might as well be a fight, because while the song might be blunt and one of the heaviest, most punishing tracks Isbell has ever released, 'Anxiety' feels like the sort of song that both embodies its established concept directly, and yet also something that he had to make, that even despite recent critical acclaim and success going forward, it can remain a real struggle that rarely ever shows. It reflects the sort of frustrated desperation that that's placed in much sharper context when family comes in the mix and you have to move past self-reliance - if you have people relying on you, that sense of security and placeis all the more important, and Jason Isbell coming to the conclusion that his lack of place in that world can be endured if he can even help a little to provide for his family... there's an arc to that, and reflects the wonderful sense of empathy that's always informed the detail in his writing. It's more direct now, but when speaking to those closest, the importance and weight of the message needs to be carried and understood.

And as such, it makes a certain amount of sense that Isbell brought back the 400 Unit for a meatier instrumental palette, and while producer Dave Cobb has always underwhelmed me a bit in his work for Isbell, here I really have no complaints! For one, I have to call out the moments of southern rock heft that are phenomenally well-balanced, finally hammering out the tonal frustrations that frustrated me about some of Cobb's rock-leaning projects, which lends phenomenal galloping groove to 'Cumberland Gap', echoing minor chords simmering against deeper tones on 'White Man's World', the crushing weight on 'Anxiety' that might be the heaviest, borderline-metal that Isbell has ever approached, to the more straightforward and welcome tones of 'Hope The High Road' with swells of bluesy organ that comes through much more prominently behind 'Molotov'. And yes, you can make the argument that this record never quite hits the progressive majesty behind a song like 'Children Of Children', or that Cobb abuses a live vocal pickup for Isbell more than he needs to - Isbell's howl has plenty of edge and power, especially when backed by his wife Amanda Shires, who also handles fiddle. But at the same time, the guitar tones are full and organic, carry some well-balanced melodic groove that places off the basslines remarkably well, and when this record strips back to the fiddle on 'Last Of My Kind', 'Tupelo', and especially 'Somebody To Love', you remember that Cobb is one of the best damn producers for strings working today, perfectly capturing the ragged supple tones that add that melodic accent incredibly well, even stripped back to its barest at 'If We Were Vampires', and even there that track picks up some haunted backing texture that's chilling in the best way possible.

So at the end of the day... I'll be honest, I might like Southeastern and Something More Than Free a tad more - Isbell is such a detailed writer that there's a part of me that feels there was a bit of a concession to directness. But at the same time, at a lean ten tracks, Isbell nails the emotional and thematic arc that any trace of softer indulgence would probably feel out of place - there's a sense of urgency to The Nashville Sound, another side to Isbell's writing and style that I'll admit a part of me missed. And when in comes to technical songwriting... look, it rarely if ever gets better in country, so it should be no surprise this notches a 9/10 from me and the highest of recommendations. Folks, don't miss out on Jason Isbell - in a world this impermanent, his tunes are worth holding onto.

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