Is Jason Isbell the best songwriter of his generation?
The former Drive-By Truckers member certainly made a case for the affirmative on Southeastern, his breakthrough solo LP from 2013. Southeastern was the kind of remarkable record that only grows in stature, importance, and personal impact over time. Written in the wake of Isbell getting sober and taking control of his life, Southeastern was at once both mournful and hopeful. Within those songs was a man with a suitcase full of doubts about himself, but also someone with the resilience to push forward and be better—at least with the helping hand of the person he loved most. “Home was a dream, one that I’d never seen, until you came along,” Isbell sang on “Cover Me Up,” Southeastern’s stirring mission statement, and the best song of the decade so far. He wrote it for Amanda Shires, the woman he married just months before Southeastern dropped, and the person he credits with saving him from the darkness.
Needless to say, Southeastern was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment for Isbell. Those songs came out of an epiphany and a pivotal turning point in his life, and they held together as one of the foremost masterpieces of the past 15 years. It didn’t matter if Isbell was writing about his own sobriety (“Cover Me Up,” “Super 8”), or telling woeful tales about auxiliary characters (“Elephant,” “Live Oak,” “Yvette”). Everything on the record struck an emotional chord, and turned Jason Isbell from a promising talent into one of the torchbearers of the Americana, folk, and alt-country genres.
Of course, making a 10 out of 10 classic (I originally gave Southeastern a 9, because I’m a moron) is something of a blessing and a curse for a musician. On one hand, it broke Isbell’s music to a huge number of new listeners and made it easier for him and Shires to “keep the lights on,” as he told me in an interview last month. On the other hand, it created an impossible standard for him to chase on the follow-up, which arrives this week in the form of Something More Than Free.
At least in Isbell’s opinion, the songs on Something are even stronger than the songs on Southeastern. They’re certainly livelier, as is evident right from the first moments of opener “If it Takes a Lifetime.” While the chorus hook on the song goes “I thought the highway loved me, but she beat me like a drum”—not exactly a “life is great!” missive—”If it Takes a Lifetime” is still the sunniest sound we’ve heard from Isbell in quite some time. Credit the return of bassist Jimbo Hart, a member of Isbell’s backing band, The 400 Unit, who for some reason had to miss out on the recording sessions for Southeastern. Hart’s rollicking basslines turn “If it Takes a Lifetime” into a veritable anthem—even if the narrator of the song is talking about how “working for the county keeps [him] pissing clear.” As an album starting point, it’s about as far from “Cover Me Up” as Isbell could get.
In fact, arguably the most surprising thing about Something More Than Free is that not a single one of its 11 tracks could have fit comfortably on Southeastern. Instead, Isbell makes conscious decisions to steer toward new sonic and thematic territory. Lead single “24 Frames” is ’90s folk-rock kissed with a power pop chorus, “Palmetto Rose” is bar band blues-rock, and “Children of Children” justifies Isbell’s early description of the album as “Lynyrd Cohen.” Southeastern wasn’t a solo acoustic record, but it often felt like one, with spartan arrangements and soft, sensitive production from Dave Cobb that consistently made you feel like you were in the same room as Jason. (Fittingly, Cobb says some of that record was recorded in his kitchen.) Cobb is back in the producer’s chair for Something More Than Free, but other than a pair of sparse acoustic ballads (“Flagship” and “Speed Trap Town”), it sounds almost completely different from Southeastern. The arrangements are bigger, bolder, and looser—with the return of Jimbo Hart and the arrival of a second guitar player (Sadler Vaden, whose style complements Jason’s nicely) filling in Southeastern’s grayscale corners with vibrant color.
The biggest beneficiary of the new full-band approach is “Children of Children,” which begins as a reverb-soaked ’70s folk ballad, and explodes into a massive electric guitar climax worthy of an arena rock power ballad. But the martial drum rhythm of “The Life You Chose,” the whining fiddle on the wind-torn “Hudson Commodore” (courtesy of Shires herself), and the electric crunch of the deeply southern “Palmetto Rose” all present a more at-ease version of Jason Isbell than the guy we’ve met on past albums. Not by accident, Something More Than Free is the album that best approximates the sound of a 400 Unit live show.
If Something More Than Free sees Isbell growing as an album maker and a studio musician, it also sees him keeping pace as a lyricist. Even in the days when he hadn’t found his “other half” producer, or hadn’t learned how to make albums that flow well from top to bottom, Isbell had always been a dynamite songwriter first and foremost. He still is. Where Southeastern explored themes of being lost but finding a way to carry on anyway, Something More Than Free is an album about family, relationships, responsibility, and what makes life worth living. It’s not surprising that those subjects were on Isbell’s mind while he was writing: he’s been sober for three years and married for two, and his first child is due in September. When he’s singing about parents and children on this record, he’s singing about his own life—even if he couches those stories in narratives told through the eyes of fictitious characters.
Every stage of life gets explored. On “Children of Children,” Isbell finds himself looking back in time through the lens of old photographs, thinking about how young his mother was when she had him, and wondering about “all the years I took from her just by being born.” The devastating “Speed Trap Town” hits the other side of the same conversation, as a narrator watches his father wither and die before realizing that he no longer has anything left to tie him to his hometown. “The Life You Chose” is about looking back at young love and how the first person you fall for is always there, even if they aren’t the endgame; “How to Forget” is about divorce and how it somehow hurts more when one member of a couple has found someone new; and “Flagship” is about love in a mature relationship, and a pledge to never let the magic die.
Like Springsteen, Isbell’s songs resonate because of detail and character. The narrative nuances of “Speed Trap Town” take an elegy and give it a sense of place and time. We go from a grocery store checkout lane, to a high school football game, to a hospital room, to the front seat of a pickup truck, all as the protagonist works through the stages of grief in the hours following his father’s death. The events take place over the course of a single night, and the song only stretches just past the four-minute mark, but by the time the sun comes up in the final verse, we feel like we’ve seen an entire harrowing film flash before our eyes.
Also as with Springsteen, the characters in Isbell’s songs aren’t saints. The father in “Speed Trap Town” is a philanderer who never cared much about his family, while the narrator in “How to Forget” knows that it’s his fault his first marriage fell apart (“She won’t stop telling stories, and most of them are true”). If there’s a hero here, it’s the protagonist of the title track, a lonely man who takes his solace in the backbreaking challenges of manual labor. When I spoke to Jason in June, he said that his songs are often about the people who never got their American Dream, the people who “just work for the sake of being able to get back to work the next day.” The narrator in “Something More Than Free” is the epitome of that. On Sunday mornings, he’s “too tired to go to church,” but he holds onto his faith regardless, seeing honor in what he does (“The hammer needs the nail and the freight train needs the rail/And I’m doing what I’m on this earth to do”) and never losing hope for a better life. “The day will come, I’ll find a reason/Somebody proud to love a man like me,” he proclaims on the song’s stirring bridge. “My back is numb, and my hands are freezing/But what I’m working for is something more than free.”
It’s fitting that the above line gives this album its name, because the protagonist of “Something More Than Free” is the ultimate Isbell archetype: the blue collar worker, the everyman, the regular southern guy who puts his nose to the grindstone every day, even if the promise of grandeur is nothing more than a speck on the horizon. Such characters populate every single one of these songs, from the guy urging a girl to run away with him and “go somewhere where people stay up late” on “The Life You Chose,” to the troubadour at the bar who is always “hanging out when it’s past time to go” on “To A Band That I Loved.” If the nickname “The Boss” weren’t already taken, Isbell might just have been a candidate.
Even if he never gets a snappy nickname like Bruce did, though, Isbell has already joined the pantheon of history’s greatest songwriters. Like Southeastern, Something More Than Free is a masterwork, and while I’m not sure if I quite agree with Isbell that it’s better than Southeastern, it certainly offers a different (but equally satisfying) experience. Where the last album often looked at characters with unusual stories (the roving serial killer in “Live Oak,” the high school student gunning down a sexual predator in “Yvette,” the alcoholic coming down from a bloody hotel brawl in “Super 8”), the stories on Something More Than Free are smaller-scale and closer to home, but no less striking. Not many songwriters can tap into the psyches of so many different characters with such a personal, detailed touch. But Isbell isn’t your average songwriter, and on Something More Than Free, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that he’s outplaying anyone else in the game right now.