It's been a decade since Jason Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers amid addiction struggles and an imploding marriage. One of the most promising songwriters of his generation (just listen to his whip-smart contributions to the Truckers' Dirty South and Decoration Day LPs), we all watched with excitement as he put together a new band and dropped his first solo record — but that anticipation turned to disappointment pretty fast. As Isbell continued to battle his addictions, his songwriting suffered. The first few post-Truckers outings were iffy affairs, featuring mere flashes of the fireworks he had demonstrated as a younger man.
And then he found help, got sober and regained his command of the craft. From the early part of this decade, Isbell has enjoyed a steady run of instant classic records filled with terrific songs and simple arrangements. Each success built on the last until 2015's Something More Than Free, an out-and-out masterpiece featuring his tightest writing since his Truckers days.
As a leading light in the Americana scene, Isbell has long been caught up in the tangle of opinions and convictions surrounding "Real Country Music" — which is at its root the same old battle over studio sheen vs. rawer recordings that's been raging since (at least) Abbey Road vs. Let It Bleed. But on The Nashville Sound, its very title an ironic nod to that exhausting musical turf war, Isbell seems to be proclaiming the pleasure he takes in carrying that weight.
In the context of his recent hot streak, though, Nashville finds Isbell becoming perhaps a bit too familiar with his own routine. This "Nashville Sound" of his is starting to feel familiar, even rote.
The album opens with "The Last of My Kind," a classic Us-vs.-Them outsider ballad that, despite taking a weird left turn in the final stanza, never feels like a fresh idea, and which kind of signals where we're headed. Though it features several wonderful moments, and a few dynamite songs, The Nashville Sound is the first thing Isbell's done in years that doesn't represent a step forward. It's more like dancing in place.
Though he tackles politics ("White Man's World," "Hope the High Road"), mental health ("Anxiety" and "Chaos and Clothes") and other highly present concerns, the overall effect is slightly more timely than timeless.
Perhaps it's unfair, though, to hold Isbell to his own lofty standards. Compared to those of his contemporaries, these songs are still miles ahead, particularly album highlight "If We Were Vampires." That song, easily among the best he's ever written, is a desperate discussion of the inevitability that love, even perfect and true love, will one day be torn apart by death. "I'll give you every second I can find," sings Isbell in duet with his wife Amanda Shires, "just hoping it's not me who's left behind."
Hoo boy. I doubt you'll hear a better song this year. (Southeastern Records)