“Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know.” So Jason Isbell proclaims in the middle of “Hope the High Road,” the resilient lead single from his brand new LP, The Nashville Sound. It’s something of a mission statement for the record, which is very much informed by 2016’s shit storm of political division and deep-seated anger. However, that lyric only gains its resonance from the line that follows it: “But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road.” Being pissed off and dwelling on everything that went wrong last year might feel good, but it isn’t productive. Looking forward and striving to do better and be better is what’s necessary to effect change.
As a lead single, “Hope the High Road” is not indicative of what this album sounds like. It’s bright and anthemic where much of the record is dark and jagged, opting for Springsteen-style uplift instead of following the record’s lead of addressing all those nagging thoughts that you don’t want to talk about at parties. However, the message of the song—that maybe it’s a good idea to take a look inward instead of casting blame for once—is what gives the LP its beating heart. The Nashville Sound is the third masterpiece in a row from Isbell, and it gets there by never giving easy answers to the hard questions.
Hard questions are abundant on The Nashville Sound, too. Isbell’s songs here blur the personal and political, addressing matters of class, race, family, heartbreak, mortality, and self-doubt. Even on the album’s most scathing political number, though—the album centerpiece “White Man’s World”—Isbell avoids the kind of heavy-handedness that might earn him the criticism of “preaching to the choir.” Far too deft a songwriter to rely on platitudes to make his point, Isbell takes what could easily have become four minutes of sloganeering and instead uses “White Man’s World” as an opportunity to take a look in the mirror. What role does he play in standing against racial prejudice and oppression? What can he do about the rampant sexism present in country music—sexism that may well have benefited him while shunting his wife to the sidelines? How can he raise his daughter in a world where women are too often treated as objects? Isbell ponders each of these questions, recognizing that he might not be the right person to answer them, but still willing to hope that the answers might not be all bad. “I still have faith but I don’t know why,” he sings in the final verse, “Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
“Hope the High Road” and “White Man’s World” aren’t the only politically-charged moments on The Nashville Sound. The rip-roaring “Cumberland Gap” makes good on Isbell’s promise that this LP would be more of a rock record. The song is about a working-class southern man who lives in a town where “there’s nothing but churches, bars, and grocery stores.” He spends his days in the coal mines, trying to make ends meet—at least until the mines shut down and he’s left with a horrific dilemma: get out of town and leave his mother behind, or stick around killing time until time—or alcohol—gets around to killing him. The song is fiction, but the picture it paints—of economically devastated areas where all the jobs got up and left—is all too real for many parts of the country. You can tell from Isbell’s songs and his Twitter feed that he is an extremely outspoken critic of our current president. With this song, though, he puts the listener right in the middle of the kind of town that handed Trump the election—the towns that felt abandoned by previous administrations and looked down upon by the very people who were supposed to be “tolerant” and “progressive.”
Similarly, the stripped down, twangy opener “The Last of My Kind” is a quietly searing character study about a rural man who tries to make a new life in the city and ends up feeling old, rejected, and broken down. “Tried to go to college but I didn’t belong/Everything I said was either funny or wrong/Laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans/Laughed when they gave me amphetamines/Left me alone in a bad part of town/36 hours to come back down,” he sings, before asking the song’s titular question: “Am I the last of my kind?” In the cultural narrative of the United States, cities are often framed as the bastions of knowledge and enlightenment, while rural areas are disparaged for their backwards views and traditional values. Country music often gets caught in the blast radius of that cultural superiority, getting written off as “hick junk” (or something similar) by people who are otherwise open-minded about music that gives voice to different races, cultures, or experiences. “The Last of My Kind” presents itself proudly as a country ballad, and that fact—combined with the potent, pointed lyrics—seems to pose a challenge to the people who embrace songwriters like Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, but write off other artists in the country or Americana spheres. Are you really open-minded? Or are you the kind of person who would laugh at someone for how they talk, how they dance, the clothes they wear, or the traditions they observe, just because that person comes from a part of the country that you deem to be “backwards” or “uneducated”?
Despite its political heft, The Nashville Sound is more than just a reaction to the brave new world we’ve found ourselves living in since last year’s election. In the time since Isbell last wrote a record, he and his wife also welcomed a baby girl into the world, and family is very much a key theme for this particular set of songs. The nearly seven-minute “Anxiety” is a dark, crashing rock epic that sees Isbell worrying about losing all the good things that have come into his life since he got sober. “Molotov” is an acoustic rocker that sounds like Springsteen circa The River, with Jason taking a clear-eyed look at just how much his wife means to him: their love story isn’t a fairytale, but it’s sturdy enough to face the darkness. And “If We Were Vampires,” arguably the most stunning songwriting achievement in Isbell’s entire catalog, is a rumination about how, in a long-term relationship, someone eventually ends up alone.
“Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift/Give you every second I can find/And hope it isn’t me that’s left behind” Isbell sings in the fourth verse of “Vampires,” his voice wavering on the last line as if he was fighting tears in the studio. He’s always been great at writing story songs and peering into the lives of other people via nuanced and realistic characters, but his most affecting songs are often the ones where he writes about his own love story. “Cover Me Up,” from Southeastern was about how falling in love with the right person at the right time helped him pull himself up, get sober, and put his life back together. “Flagship,” from Something More Than Free, was the rare love song that looked past the platitudes of infatuation toward a love strong enough to stay alive and magical for the long haul. And “If We Were Vampires,” which closes out the trilogy, is even rarer still, a song about the simultaneous triumph and crushing sadness of a love so durable and true that, in the words of Shakespeare, it “bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
“If We Were Vampires” closes out side one of The Nashville Sound with love shrouded by darkness, so it’s only fitting that “Someone to Love” end the record with love bathed in light. The song, a manifesto of sorts written for Isbell’s daughter, is a pure and touching tribute to family and the strength that a great one can give you. Strength to pick up the guitar and sing for the first time. Strength to stay out all night under the stars, marveling at the beauty of the world and the person you love instead of taking it all for granted and turning in too early. And strength to follow your dreams and be the person you want to be, no matter what the hell anybody else says. “I don’t quite recognize the world that you’ll call home,” Isbell sings for his daughter in the last couplet of the last verse. “Just find what makes you happy girl, and do it ‘til you’re gone.” It’s a perfect, life-affirming conclusion to a record that weaves darkness and light and despair and hope together as twisted, tangled threads in the same complex tapestry. Isbell’s made a lot of terrific records, but he’s never made one that felt like such a complete emotional journey. And frankly, the fact that he’s still capable of raising the bar after Southeastern and Something More Than Free, both top 10 contenders for the decade so far, is proof that Jason Isbell is headed for the pantheon of legends.