Album Review: Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell
Great, Based on 18 Critics
Exclaim - 90 Based on rating 9/10
Ever 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.
Though Jason Isbell has been releasing albums since he was part of the Drive-By Truckers lineup that made 2003’s Decoration Day, it was another decade until the Alabama-born singer, songwriter and guitarist stepped fully into his own. His initial post-Truckers solo efforts increasingly had their bright spots, to be sure, but Isbell’s 2013 release Southeastern was his first consistently great record, full of powerful lyrics on songs that lingered long after the last notes fell quiet. He matches it on his latest, a collection of 11 new tunes by turns mournful, pungent and quietly devastating.
Jason Isbell's 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern was written and recorded in the wake of Isbell's newfound sobriety, and it often sounded and felt like a musical version of the Fourth Step, in which Isbell took a long, hard look in the mirror as he came to terms with the emotional wreckage he left in his wake during his years as a drunk. By comparison, Something More Than Free, Isbell's 2015 follow-up, plays out as the work of a man a year or so into his recovery, grateful but still working with the nuts and bolts of living as a better and more mature man while the shadows of the past remain faintly but clearly visible. The opening tune, "If It Takes a Lifetime," is sung in the voice of a man adjusting to a quiet existence, not in love with every aspect of life as a working stiff but happy to be in a better place, and it sets the stage for a set of songs that move back and forth between past and present as Isbell's characters deal with lovers they wronged ("How to Forget"), the burdens of family ("Children of Children"), the dignity and restlessness of labor ("Something More Than Free"), and making sense of the responsibilities and disappointments of adult life ("Hudson Commodore" and "The Life You Chose").
With his honeysuckle drawl and unrivaled knack for lyrical detail, Jason Isbell is arguably the most revered roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation. On his latest, Isbell, 36, sings plenty about romantic dedication and past recklessness, familiar territory that the singer mined to great success on his 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern. But this time around, he trades in that album's personal tales of crisis and redemption for a more nuanced, wide-angled form of storytelling, packed to bursting with evocative specifics: "Jack and Coke in your momma's car/You were reading The Bell Jar.
Something More Than Free presents Jason Isbell with a new challenge: nationwide expectations. His previous album, Southeastern, was a critically acclaimed work that landed on plenty of “Best of 2013” lists, including number five here at PopMatters. It had a raw, confessional quality to it that seemed to stem directly from Isbell’s struggle to stop drinking, even as the songs covered topics like the insatiable lust of a new relationship, fear of flying over water, tense nights in shitty motels, and the slow, lingering cancer-related death of a friend.
Jason IsbellSomething More Than Free(Southeastern/Thirty Tigers)Rating: 4 stars out of 5 Jason Isbell is on a roll. There’s no better songwriter on the planet at this moment, no one operating with the same depth, eloquence, or feeling. He’s surrounded himself with musicians who can translate his material with flash or restraint, depending on what’s needed.
For most musicians, putting aside the past is practically impossible. Their scars are inseparable from their art. Many are paralyzed by the troubles crowding their rearview mirrors, but a select few succeed in channeling that anguish into cathartic, brutally exposed exhibitions of perseverance. Fresh out of rehab and barely back on his feet, Jason Isbell put his past on public display in 2013’s desolate masterpiece, Southeastern.
Considering the pitiful state of arena country, Jason Isbell is a damn messiah. Something More Than Free demonstrates Isbell's songwriting prowess and the honed power of his band, The 400 Unit. At once profoundly intimate and universally true, these songs of hardship, love, and dignity resonate with the man's soul. (www.jasonisbell.com) .
At some point after the storm, after days, weeks, or years of tumult and uncertainty, the clouds part. The sun shines. Everything feels right, however tenuously. This was the exact moment that Jason Isbell’s last solo record, 2013’s Southeastern, captured. During his days as a member of the ….
With 2013's Southeastern, Jason Isbell laid to rest any doubts—including his own—that he could write great songs while sober. That it was his first album since kicking booze wasn't just part of the backstory of Southeastern, it was practically the album's central tenet, referenced in several songs and in just about every interview Isbell has given since. Disproving the damaging myth that tortured artists always produce better work than contented ones, Southeastern was by far the strongest and most cohesive effort of Isbell's until-then spotty solo career.
Jason Isbell's fifth studio album opens with a familiar face. The narrator of the cheery "If It Takes a Lifetime" is a man settling down after years on the road, adjusting to an empty house and a dead-end job while acclimating to the lowered expectations of a lonely life. The song's chief conflict is summed up by the line, "I keep my spirits high, find happiness by and by." There's more than a little bit of Isbell the touring musician and recovering alcoholic in that narrator, not only in the lines about the road ("I thought the highway loved me but she beat me like a drum") but also in the references to not drinking ("I don't keep liquor here, never cared for wine or beer").
The Upshot: UK folksinger and cult heroine Shirley Collins get the tribute treatment to fine effect. When I was a kid my parents would play Pete Seeger records in the house. It kept open in my young brain a sensitive nostalgic spot for folk music. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally heard British folk music like Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention.
Jason Isbell has quietly been making quality solo albums for a devoted fan base since his 2007 departure from the Drive By Truckers. In 2013 he broke through to a wider audience, and award-winning acclaim, with the sublime “Southeastern.” The Alabama native continues his winning streak with the quieter but equally captivating “Something More Than Free.” Produced by Dave Cobb with the same combination of austerity and sumptuousness that he brought to “Southeastern,” as well as recent albums by Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, the 11-track collection is by turns elaborate and spare. Isbell carefully crafts vignettes that somehow manage the trick of sounding both modern and timeless.
How to follow the supersized success of 2013's Southeastern? Sonically, fifth stab Something More Than Free fits neatly into Jason Isbell's folk, rock, and country, with the occasional emotional guitar outburst. Where Southeastern followed a stint in rehab, dealing with sobriety and the search for stability, here he tackles adult themes of the day-to-day. The 36-year-old Alabama native looks outside himself to what's left of the middle class and tells their tale with clarity and resonance, recalling the best work of John Prine or the late, great Southern author Larry Brown.
The Upshot: Follow-up to 2013’s Southeastern offers nuggets of Isbell’s hard-earned wisdom via perfectly-wrought lyrical details, all against a warm, mostly acoustic backdrop of gorgeous melodies and easy-going rhythms. What does an artist do when his or her previous record generated unanimous critical huzzahs, landed ‘em on numerous magazine covers (including, ahem, BLURT’s issue 14) and notched multiple year-end awards—in this instance, the Americana Association’s Artist Of The Year, Album Of The Year and Song Of The Year? That level of acclaim must be immensely gratifying on one level, and a much-needed form of redemption for all the self-doubt that inevitably goes into any new project for a musician. Vindication, too.
Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell’s breakout 2013 album, Southeastern, put him at the top of the songwriting food chain, at least in Americana circles. His latest is built with parts from the same scrapyard, rife with Springsteenish American themes and tales from flyover country. It doesn’t reach the heights Southeastern did, but it comes close.
Jason Isbell begins the title track of his new album, “Something More Than Free,” picturing the end of a day’s labor, his voice set against the lonesome strum of an acoustic guitar. He’s in character, as somebody in the construction or freight-loading trade, drawing his only comfort from a blunt sense of purpose and the hope of eternal reward. “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts,” he cries in the chorus.
Country music is having something of a moment in 2015. The genre is more popular on the radio and on the charts than it ever has been in America. Five of the top twenty albums on Billboard’s 2014 year-end charts were from country artists—six if you count Taylor Swift, whose journey from country starlet to World’s Biggest Pop Star mirrors Nashville’s embrace of rock and hip-hop tropes to reach a wider (and younger) audience.