Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Written by Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell’s singular gift as a songwriter is his ability to make even the broadest of concepts– the idea of “getting above your raising” on “Outfit,” for instance, or the loneliness of dying on “Elephant”– feel intimate through the use of specific details. Because his songs are grounded, above all else, in a deep empathy, that specificity doesn’t work against them: “Cover Me Up” resonates far beyond the floodplain of Percy Priest lake, and “Dress Blues” is still devastating for those who didn’t know Marine Cpl. Matthew Conley.
“Death Wish,” the lead single from the forthcoming Weathervanes, is perhaps the first song of Isbell’s career that seems to lack a point of entry. “Did you ever love a woman with a death wish?” he asks on the opening line, and I’m left wondering what the emotional impact is for listeners whose answer is, “Nope.”
Here, the details he provides don’t make the narrative any more accessible. “Oh, and did you ever catch her climbing on the rooftop / Higher than a kite, dead of winter in a tank top?” he continues on the song’s chorus. It’s a well-crafted couplet and a distinctive image, to be sure, but the impact of the song hinges entirely on how interesting any given listener might find this exact story, rather than on how applicable the story might be to their own experiences. Isbell rarely writes his lyrics in the second-person, and it ultimately works against him to invite “you” into this particular song.
If that criticism seems nit-picky, it’s a direct result of the standards Isbell has set not only for himself but for the whole of his generation of country and country-adjacent songwriters. “Death Wish” is fine. But the artist who has so often set the curve for his contemporaries gets graded on that same curve. To that end, “Death Wish” is at least something of a disappointment from a songwriting perspective.
More encouraging, at least, is the depth of the single’s production. Parting with Dave Cobb for this project, Isbell takes the reins for himself, and he shows sharp instincts for the mixing. The 400 Unit’s lead guitarist, the great Sadler Vaden, gets ample room to show off. Isbell self-identifies as a rock-n-roll act, and “Death Wish” is the first of his studio recordings that truly captures the sound and breakneck energy of just how good he and The 400 Unit are live. That alone is reason to be excited for what Weathervanes has in store, even if “Death Wish” is an underwhelming first impression.