Jason Isbell garnered all manner of acclaim after the release of Southeastern, which won album of the year at the Americana Music Awards but, predictably, didn't win the Americana album of the year at the Grammys.
Southeastern is one of the finest albums to come out from anyone in decades, so Mr. Isbell had a tall order writing a follow-up album. If I had to compare Southeastern to a baseball squad (something Isbell might appreciate because he's a baseball fan, in particular a Braves fan), I'm thinking the '27 Yankees. Sluggers up and down the lineup.
His new album, Something More Than Free, has a lot of live up to. And while Southeastern is a superb album, I still pine for Isbell's music that has a rockier tinge ~ if you recall tunes like "Never Gonna Change," "Goddamn Lonely Love," "Grown" (one of my favorites from his first album), "However Long," "Soldiers Get Strange," etc. Heck, if you listen to the first five songs of Here We Rest, you get the idea of the idea of what I'm talking about.
But that is all minor complaining really. I'm just being picky. Sure, I'd like to have more electric-guitar-forward songs on his latest albums, but that wish flattens out with repeated listens to Something More Than Free.
To take up baseball comparisons again, the new album could be compared to the 1995 Braves.
And as I look at the lineup of songs, the first four are solid hitters. I envision three of the four batters getting singles in a baseball game with "24 Frames" getting a double or maybe a triple.
Then comes the four power hitters of the lineup: "Children of Children," "The Life You Chose," "Something More Than Free," and "Speed Trap Town." Just fantastic songs.
Having followed Isbell's music closely since he was in Drive-By Truckers and then went solo, I see some common themes in this album with his earlier work: regret, flight, desire, nostalgia, bad decisions, grim optimism, sadness, loss, alienation, et al.
The album starts out of a pleasant tune, but looking more deeply, the lyrics of "If It Takes a Lifetime" reveal a pessimistic tone. When hearing, "I keep my spirits high, find happiness by and by,/ If it takes a lifetime," I get the sense that the persona of the song will never find happiness. "If it takes a lifetime" lingers in the air. Big "if." Later on, some of my favorite lines in the song provide this outlook: "A man is the product of all the people that he ever loved./ It don't make a difference how it ended up." I hope that's true.
"24 Frames" provides one of the more interesting choruses I've heard in a long time: "You thought God was an architect. Now you know/ He's something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow./ And everything you've built that's all for show goes up in flames/ In twenty-four frames." I doubt the rubes who run radio stations will play a song comparing God to a pipe bomb. Their loss.
The first of the power hitters, "Children of Children," could invite some criticism from the liberal intelligentsia (and I say this as someone who would be considered "liberal") because people could interpret it as a coming out against single motherhood. That would be flat-out stupid. The lyrics stoically look at teenage pregnancy with music that reminds me of Neil Young.
If there's a song out there that in one line references Jack Daniels and in the next line references The Bell Jar, I'd like you to find it. The themes of flight, desire, and nostalgia resonate throughout "The Life You Chose."
If people don't listen closely enough, they could see "Something More Than Free" as some kind of positive workingman's anthem, similar to how some people think "Born in the USA" and "Pink Houses" are optimistic songs about America. The persona of the song clearly is working too damn hard and has no life outside of working at least two jobs. When the persona thanks God or feels "lucky" "for the work," you get the sense that the character of the song is underpaid and overworked with no recourse or way out.
As stunning as "Elephant" was on Southeastern, I think "Speed Trap Town" is its equal. It's a gut-wrenching song about a guy wanting to flee his hometown as his dad dies in an ICU: "But it never did occur to me to leave until 'til tonight/ When I realized he'll never be alright./ Sign my name and say my last goodbye, then decide./ There's nothing here that can't be left behind."
The last two songs are odes to Charleston, SC and Centro-matic. The former, "Palmetto Rose" is a fun, jaunty number with soul. The latter, "To a Band That I Loved" surprised me because when I think of Centro-matic, fuzz-laden electric guitars come to mind. In contrast, the song is a slower-moving melodic treatise on the early days of the band when Isbell played with them when he wasn't touring with DBT. It's a song I didn't care for at first, but it's grown on me.