Jason Isbell's brilliant lyrics describe the struggle of blue collar life
A review of Jason Isbell's newest album, Something more than free
The release of Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free was as much of a mainstream media event as one can expect in this age of audience fragmentation. The album debuted at the top of the Billboard charts in country, rock, and folk, and it garnered Isbell profiles everywhere from The New Yorker to NPR.
The media buzz on Isbell has only increased since his last effort, Southeastern, which came with a ready-made storyline about the Alabama singer’s admission of alcoholism and pursuit of sobriety, all against a backdrop of true love with his soulmate, singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shire. And this year’s stories have mostly recycled that narrative.
But the media ballyhoo isn’t just hype: He’s really that good. With the flair of the South’s great fiction writers, Isbell’s lyrics evoke the complex inner lives of people who spend their days filling holes and loading boxes. The people who “keep on showing up, hell-bent on growing up, if it takes a lifetime.” Or the narrator of “Speed Trap Town,” who memorializes the father he can’t seem to shake, saying, “He was a tough State Trooper ‘til a decade back, when the girl that wasn’t Momma caused his heart attack.”
And Isbell isn’t just good on the page. His melodies are supple and seductive. His high, lonesome tenor aches with life’s lessons learned. And he’s his own lead guitar player.
At 36, Isbell has been knocking around the music business for more than a decade, with several years as a member of the Drive By Truckers and four solo albums. He was always great, even when he was drunk. But with sobriety Isbell’s gotten better. It also means there’s a greater chance that he’ll be filling our heads for decades to come with soaring tunes, crunchy riffs, and memorable characters from America’s margins.
This review appeared in the October 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 10, page 40).