Something More Than Free
In an ideal world, Jason Isbell would somehow be able to switch the titles of his two most recent albums. While his previous effort, Southeastern, chronicled his struggle toward sobriety and found liberation in the powers of redemption and self-worth, Isbell’s latest, Something More Than Free digs deep into the foundations of the contemporary South. In terms of tone and theme for each of these exceptional records, the titles would be more fitting were they swapped, and it’s simply remarkable that slight misnomers are as close as Isbell comes on either album to striking a false note.
As ever, it’s the authentic details in Isbell’s lyrics and how he incorporates those details seamlessly into poetic turns-of-phrase that makes Something More Than Free into a masterclass in contemporary songwriting. There isn’t another songwriter working today who could come up with a metaphor as evocative as the one Isbell crafts on the hook of lead single “24 Frames” (“You thought God was an architect/Now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb/Ready to blow”) or who would draw a parallel between a formerly majestic hotel and a maturing relationship as he does on “Flagship.” It isn’t just that Isbell is a keen observer; it’s that he’s uncommonly perceptive. The songs on Something More Than Free, to a one, showcase his unrivaled gift for finding the real humanity in minutia and for uncovering truth in the mundane.
The title track, for instance, begins as an account of a blue-collar laborer’s routine (“When I get home from work/I’ll wrestle off my clothes/Leave ‘em right inside the front door/’Cause nobody’s home to know”) before emerging as a gospel song. The protagonist sees no end to his daily drudgery, but he also clings to faith that he’ll be rewarded for doing what he’s “on this earth to do” and, moreover, that he’ll eventually find someone “proud to love a man like [him].” Like the most powerful gospel music, the song avoids empty platitudes and trades, instead, in the struggles (like “loading boxes on the trucks for someone else’s sake”) that make faith more deeply felt.
Much of the album shares this focus on the things that make life worthwhile in the throes of hardship. The protagonist on opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” sings unabashedly of how “working for the county keeps [him] pissing clear,” creating a cockeyed sense of optimism about his efforts to grow up and get his proverbial shit together. “To a Band That I Loved”— inspired by Centro-Matic and not Drive-By Truckers, for those who might be inclined for a strictly autobiographical read of the song— speaks of the transformative power of music to draw one out of feelings of isolation, as Isbell sings of being “22 backwoods years old” and of thinking he “was the only one left from an old Southern town.” Some of the specifics of one such town—Charleston— drive the narrative on “Palmetto Rose,” which also makes effective use of one of South Carolina’s lesser-known nicknames.
The importance of family figures prominently on two of the album’s standout cuts. “Children of Children” finds Isbell considering the ways that having a family can change a person, as his narrator looks back at a photograph of his childhood and wonders about all of the years he may have taken off of his mother’s life “just by being born.” It’s an astonishing line in and of itself, and it’s given even greater weight as he looks at his own child and wonders the very same thing. That weight of mortality comes to bear on “Speed Trap Town,” on which Isbell’s narrator experiences the slow death of his father (“How long can they keep you in an ICU?/Veins through the skin like a faded tattoo,” which it stands to reason will be the single most devastating couplet of 2015) and realizes that he no longer has anyone or anything tethering him to his hometown.
Taken as individual character sketches, each of the songs on Something More Than Free astonishes for its depth; Isbell doesn’t spend too long with any one of these folks, but he’s nonetheless able to lay bare their flaws, their values, and their hopes. That he does so with unwavering empathy is what makes the album so accessible, even though the songs are so character-driven and uniquely Southern in their points-of-view.
Isbell and producer Dave Cobb also aim for a streamlined sound that should capitalize on the greatly expanded fanbase he earned with Southeastern. “24 Frames” builds to a powerhouse chorus that owes a clear debt to Fables of the Reconstruction and Life’s Rich Pageant era R.E.M., and, not coincidentally, the single has scored Isbell’s first significant airplay, cracking the top 30 at AAA radio. “If It Takes a Lifetime” shuffles along a lithe rhythm section courtesy of bassist Jimbo Hart, returning to Isbell’s ace backing band The 400 Unit after sitting out of the Southeastern sessions, while Isbell’s wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, plays the fiddle on “Hudson Commodore.”
If there’s a knock against Something More Than Free, then, it’s that Cobb’s production is perhaps too staid. On Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit and Here We Rest, The 400 Unit proved themselves to be a loose-limbed, ramshackle sort of outfit, capable of incorporating vintage country, Muscle Shoals type R&B, and contemporary rock influences into a sound that was every bit as distinctive as Isbell’s songwriting. Here, the style is a more uniform and anonymous take on Americana. Elements of country and folk abound in the arrangements, but the overall aesthetic is conservative and, at times, borders on stuffy. Isbell and Cobb missed an opportunity to allow for the instrumentation to reflect the unique perspectives of such a diverse cast of characters.
Still, sticking to a straightforward brand of Americana is a relatively minor quibble when considering all that Isbell accomplishes on Something More Than Free. And, ultimately, if reigning in some of his and his band’s quirks on record allows Isbell to reach a wider audience, then so much the better. Because, in a year that truly feels like it has reached a tipping point in the battle for the soul of country music, for an artist of Jason Isbell’s caliber to top the country albums chart with an album as thoughtful and as expertly crafted and performed as Something More Than Free feels like a true watershed moment: The artist topping the charts also happens to be the one at the top of the game.
Recommended Tracks: “24 Frames,” “Flagship,” “Children of Children,” “Speed Trap Town,” “Palmetto Rose.”