Something More Than Free
Album Review & NPR Stream
By William “TK” Fuller
Earlier this year, Jason Isbell suggested that the songs on his upcoming release were perhaps even better than the batch that became his 2013 tour de force, Southeastern. If you were among those of us listening closely at the time, it was easy to detect the collective gasp from followers of Mr. Isbell, a native of Greenhill, Alabama who now calls Nashville home. Let us not forget, the aforementioned Southeastern garnered widespread acclaim, most notably being awarded Album of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards. The opening track, “Cover Me Up,” also garnered Song of the Year, and Jason’s reception of Artist of the Year made for a clean sweep on that particular night. As you might imagine, such recognition catapulted Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, into unchartered territory. The band had been touring extensively in support of Southeastern since the previous summer, and their rise reached a fever pitch in the fall of 2014. Some highlights of that period include a 3 night stand at the historic Ryman Auditorium and a handful of shows opening for famed singer/songwriter John Prine (Note: the Prine/Isbell co-bill is slated to return this fall). Taking these facts into account, many Isbell devotees were left asking: “How can he possibly follow it up?”
My answer to that particular line of inquiry is simple. Once you release an album as pristine as Southeastern, what comes next is gravy. That is to say, Jason Isbell could have never graced the doors of another studio and still left a strong legacy with gripping tracks such as “Elephant” and “Yvette.” The central themes of that album still evoke a wide range of emotions for me. Those songs were written during a period of profound personal change for Isbell, which no doubt spurred his creative process even further. At 36, Isbell has truly found his voice. That is not to say that his songwriting prior to sobriety and a budding family life was lacking. While I’m hesitant to even bring up Jason’s time as a member of Southern rock outfit, The Drive-By Truckers, it’s also an important part of tracing his growth. Go back and listen to albums like Decoration Day (2003) and The Dirty South (2004); there you will hear a raw Isbell’s perspective on life, love, and family. In “Never Gonna Change” he flatly declares: “There ain’t much difference in the man I want to be and the man that I really am.” Now, over a decade later, it appears that he is growing ever closer to that ideal.
Something More Than Free, due out July 17 on Isbell owned Southeastern Records, is a continuation of the artist’s maturation. It is equal parts reflective and anticipatory. There is a detectable Muscle Shoals influence on the opening track, an upbeat number titled “If It Takes a Lifetime.” Isbell’s razor sharp writing is on full display here, when he posits that “Man is a product of all the people that he ever loved.” I imagine that verse will resonate well with a live audience. The album’s first single, “24 Frames,” is up next. 400 Unit member Jimbo Hart’s thrumming bass provides a strong intro for the track, before Jason takes center stage in what many have likened to a Springsteen-esque performance, complete with screeching guitar sections. “Flagship” marks the first appearance of Isbell’s lovely wife Amanda Shires, a talented instrumentalist in her own right. Out of the eleven songs on Something More Than Free, I would submit that this track, a soft spoken tale of lovers who are “a thousand miles apart,” is the most akin to Isbell’s work on Southeastern. Fourth on the list is “How to Forget,” where Isbell muses along a similar vein, as his narrator appears to be grappling with memories of lovers both past and present. The questions presented there will certainly be applicable to many listeners. The most drawn out piece on the record is “Children of Children,” which, according to several interviews I’ve read, is semiautobiographical, as both Isbell and Shires were born to teenage parents. Sadler Vaden’s guitar work is noteworthy here, but in my view, the song never really seems to coalesce.
Turning to the second half of the album, “The Life You Chose” weaves an existential narrative. Many human beings feel trapped by their circumstances. Some of these things are beyond our control, but as we grow into adulthood, most of what happens to us in life is a result our conscious decisions. Isbell’s own experience confirms this, and he seems very confident addressing the importance of breaking free from such mental shackles. As a result, “The Life You Chose” could be seen a rallying point for Something More Than Free. I think it is perfectly placed before the title track, in which Isbell testifies: “I’m doing what I’m on this Earth to do.” There is a great deal of power in purpose, and the artist seems to have found that within himself. The song details the hard work of a man who returns home every night feeling as if he’s “drowning in the dirt,” but holds firm to his convictions and faith in God. “Speed Trap Town” chronicles life in a small Southern town, but in a distinct shift from previous tracks, there are fewer questions asked, and the narrator ultimately decides to leave it all behind. “Hudson Commodore” showcases a defiant young woman ready to take her chances on the open road. Her head is filled with possibility at the thought of not “returning to her daddy’s world.” Interplay between members of the 400 Unit is most prevalent on “Palmetto Rose,” and I foresee it being opened up quite a bit in the live setting, along the lines of Southeastern’s “Super 8.” Something More Than Free concludes with the ode entitled “To A Band That I Loved.” This strikes me as the most overtly personal of all the stories crafted for the record, as Isbell traces elements of both his former and present life on the road. He offers a stunning reflection: “I’ll be guarding your place in the lights on the stage of my heart. I guess we’re all still finding our part.”
The roads travelled on Something More Than Free are filled with many obstacles, but the journey is what molds the characters. I’d like to offer a special word of thanks to Jason Isbell for continuing to make music that helps so many of us find our part.