The first time I saw Jason Isbell was at Knucklehead’s half a decade ago. It was a heck of a show – he and Justin Townes Earle brought white-hot, coked-up energy. They were both skinny, unhealthy looking, and incandescent with bad behavior and self-destruction. It was a great show, though I’m a bit ashamed of the pleasure that I took in watching them thrash against whatever demons they were fighting.
At that time, it was pretty clear where Jason Isbell was headed, and it wasn't pretty. He got kicked out of the Drive By Truckers, for Christ’s sake. He was a crown prince of rowdiness.
So what happens when your rowdy friend settles down?
In Jason Isbell’s case, you come out with “Southeastern”, one of my favorite albums of all-time. It’s a song of lonely roads that lead back to love. Miserable nights that lead to a breathtaking sunrise. Dangerous people who are more wounded than evil. All set to beautiful guitar and gritty bass. I love that album.
“Something More Than Free” is his next effort. It’s a truly great album, though I don’t love it quite as easily as “Southeastern”. If “Southeastern” was about finally heading in the right direction, “Something More Than Free” is more about figuring out how to live in a better place. Frankly, the struggle to get there is a bit more edgy, a bit more threatening, and a lot more evocative. At least it's simpler.
This album feels a bit calmer than its predecessor – fewer haunting guitar notes stretched taut. Less intensity and more pensiveness. It’s probably prettier than its older brother, but it’s harder to be sure exactly if that’s right.
The thing is, I’m not sure about where he’s really at, and that ambiguity makes a big difference in the way I hear the songs. Take the first song, for example. “If it Takes A Lifetime” can either be a barely-better-than-trite zippity-doo-dah song about living past addiction, or it might be a terrifying warning from a tortured soul. I mean, “I don't keep liquor here, never cared for wine or beer/And working for the county keeps me pissin' clear/The nights are dry as dust, but I'm letting my eyes adjust/If it takes a lifetime” is a straightforward statement of sobriety and a determination to live a clean life, right? But what about “Man is the product of all/the people that he ever loved/And it don't make a difference how it ended up/If I loved you once my friend, oh, I can do it all again/If it takes a lifetime.” I’ve seen reviewers take that as making amends and a tip of the hat to the people he’s left behind - but what if it isn’t? I can see it also as a reference to his addiction as something that he’s loved, and he can do it all again.
The more I listen to this album (and that’s been quite a bit), the more I see subtle moral ambiguity and struggle. It’s not as clean and sharp as “Southeastern”, though – it’s not about trying to get right; it’s about trying to stay right. Maybe there’s a bit less urgency, but there might be more real struggle and soul. It’s a haunting, important album by one of the country’s best songwriters.
Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin is just damned happy to be listening to her Jason Isbell. It's an understatement to say she appreciates him, but her review is a more straightforward appreciation of an album we agree is truly great.
Next up: Ryan Adams, 1989