Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions

Jason Isbell is telling ghost stories.

Sometimes, the things that happen to us in our lives register immediately. Other times, years or decades have to pass for us to fully comprehend how a person or occurrence changed us. Time and experience lend perspective. They give us the wisdom necessary to look back and re-read the pages of our lives, reconvene with our former selves. That’s why reflection is so important, and it’s also why hearing one of our greatest living songwriters look back and commune with the ghosts of his past is so thrilling. Isbell has long been a master of craft: his songs have conveyed the struggles of addiction, the healing and humanizing powers of love, the joys of parenthood. But never before has he captured so thoroughly the bizarre and beguiling feeling of spending a moment inside a memory. On Reunions, by delving into his own past, this master songwriter finds new things to say about experience and identity, and about how the very act of living changes the stories we think are worth telling about our lives. It might just be his greatest album yet.

Isbell has gone on record to say that the songs on this album were things he wanted to write 15 years ago, but there were barriers in his way. “In those days, I hadn’t written enough songs to know how to do it yet,” he said. He hadn’t yet honed his songcraft into the razor-sharp knife it is now. He hadn’t gotten sober, which meant murky nights and hungover days with not enough energy left over to focus on the deeply personal layers he would need to excavate to tell these stories. Perhaps most of all, he hadn’t given himself enough time or distance to understand just how deeply the ghosts in these songs would prove to haunt him. It’s unnerving the way that regrets or papered-over traumas from our pasts tend to worm their way deeper and deeper into the recesses of our minds as years go by. Eventually, you end up alone with your thoughts on some solitary night, with nothing to do but dredge up those specters and let them speak. Reunions is the sonic equivalent of that kind of reckoning.

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Jason Isbell Shares Essay on John Prine

Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell penned an essay for The New York Times on John Prine:

Of all the things I love about John’s songwriting, my favorite is the way he could step so completely into someone else’s life. John had the gift and the curse of great empathy. In songs like “Hello in There” and “Angel From Montgomery,” he wrote from a perspective clearly very different from his own — an old man and a middle-aged woman — but he kept the first-person point of view. He wrote those songs and the rest of his incredible debut album while a young man working as a letter carrier in Chicago. “Angel From Montgomery” opens with the line “I am an old woman/named after my mother.”