Published Jul 15, 2015Ever since his astonishing debut with the Drive-By Truckers in the early 2000s, we've been watching Jason Isbell. Here was a kid from a tiny town in Alabama who could sing, play guitar and (most thrillingly of all) write songs with a wisdom, wit and swagger rarely seen even in the crowded Americana field. Isbell arrived fully formed, and his best work with the Truckers ranks among the best work that great band has ever released.
When he went solo half a decade later, he had lost much of this early fire. Struggling with alcoholism and a mean streak, wading through the morass of a failing marriage, he released a few spotty solo records before finding his voice again with 2011's Here We Rest. Since then, sober and happily re-married, the one-time whiz kid has solidified his place as Americana's veteran master. His last record, 2013's emotional, confessional Southeastern, was an out and out triumph.
How do you follow an intimate tour de force like Southeastern? If you're Isbell, you turn down the volume and flip the camera around. Recalling the blue-collar vignettes of Reagan-era Springsteen, Something More Than Free offers a series of narrative tunes about people struggling to overcome mundane hardships set to midtempo, largely acoustic arrangements.
But despite the mellow feel and the persistent tribulations suffered by his protagonists, Something More Than Free is imbued with a healthy dose of optimism. These people are not trapped, for the most part; their circumstances are cruel, but they retain their agency. On album standout "Speed Trap Town," a man comes to the decision to finally leave his dead-end small town, while opening track "It Takes A Lifetime" tells of a man who has given up his old rambling ways because "I thought that I was running to, but I was running from." Sometimes you have to leave. Sometimes you have to accept where you are.
As always, Isbell's lyrics cut like shards from some shattered mirror. You want dire family politics in a phrase? "All the years I took from her," he sings on "Children of Children," "just for being born." You want nihilist barstool philosophy? "You thought God was an architect," he taunts on "24 Frames," "Now you know: He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow." You want evocative character introductions? "I got lucky when I finished school," he sings on "The Life You Chose," "lost three fingers to a faulty tool. Settled out of court, I'm no one's fool."
Still walking the high wire, with Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell continues his streak of genre-defining masterworks. (Southeastern)