Jason Isbell has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. It was not too long ago that Isbell was part of Drive-By Truckers and penning now classic songs like “Outfit”. In this song, Isbell cites some words of wisdom like “call home on your sister’s birthday” and “have fun and stay away from the needle”. Isbell could have heeded his own advice, as the needle was not his problem but the bottle was. He has triumphed over his struggles with addiction and emerged on the other side a new man, releasing a masterpiece of an album Southeastern that chronicled his struggles. It is a one-of-kind record, so full of heartache and regret. It was both immediate and a slow burn that built emotions and tugged a new heart string on each repeat listen.
Isbell new album, Something More Than Free, has a lot to live up to. Although it is his firth solo album, it has all the trappings of sophomore slump due to the magnitude of his last. This album is different because Isbell is different. He has enjoyed the massive success of Southeastern, has a seemingly wonderful relationship with equally talented wife Amanda Shrines, and is an expected father. Isbell has described this as “celebration” album and that is how it plays.
The anchor of the album comes early with “24 Frames” which is sure to be an immediate crowd pleaser. It is a short but sweet song. Isbell sings “you thought God was and an architect now you know he something like a pipe bomb ready to explode”. Many artists feel that there is a plan to their lives but life, as Isbell knows, is messy with ups and downs.
There are more rockers with fuller arrangements on this album compared to Southeastern (which really only had one). “Palmetto Rose”, starts as a fast tempo bluesy southern stomper then finds a solid groove. The opening track “If It Takes a Lifetime” is honky tonk country jam that clearly has Isbell coming at things from a new angle. There is more promise and hope in this song then in all of his last album.
He still has ballads in him like “Children of Children”. Isbell has mastered the art of storytelling often assuming the perspective of a character to relate his own perception of the world or his own emotions. This track unfolds the story of breaking a cycle. It builds with strings then breaks into a fantastic guitar solo.
“How to Forget” shows that even though life has turned a corner he is not without his edges and regrets. The title track seems relevant in the debate of music. Music is not free; it is built on heartache, sweat, tears, triumphs. Jason Isbell has triumphed again. He is in different place but it has not constrained or hinder his art.
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