Artist: Jason Isbell
Album: The Nashville Sound
Label: Southeastern/Thirty Tigers
Release Date: 06/16/2017
Early indications from Jason were that this would be a rock and roll album but, except for two tracks it mostly mirrors his two previous Dave Cobb-produced solo releases. The 400 Unit is included in the title, making this more of a band record than a solo project. It does sound a bit edgier than his previous two but I’d have preferred more of the rocking sound found in “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope the High Road.” Realistically, two Grammys and two Americana Music Association Awards for Album of the Year and Song of the Year last time out would sway most artists to stay with the winning formula. That album, Something More Than Free, had no rockers.
Praises from just about every conceivable music publication have elevated Isbell’s status to that of a poet akin to Rodney Crowell or Lucinda Williams, to name two. Jason is still in his early 30s and has a full career ahead. It’s tempting to pose the question whether he’ll fall more into the pop realm of a James Taylor or have that outlaw spirit of a Steve Earle. We see both sides on this album. Over the course of the past two albums he has confronted his demons directly with autobiographical messages of sobriety and written both insightful personal and third person narratives about love, marriage, and fatherhood. He is growing increasingly comfortable now, speaking as a sober man with hard-earned wisdom about alcohol and drugs, which find mentions in his first four songs here. It’s also rather stunning that a young man could write a tune about mortality—“Vampires”— with lines like “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get forty years together but one day I’ll be gone/or one day you’ll be gone.”
Isbell takes on politics and privilege in “White Man’s World,” bringing it the requisite anger. Nostalgia is the theme for the opening track, “Last of My Kind” and he shows us again his poignant lyrical detail in the breakup tune, “Chaos and Clothes.” There are many instances where his honesty and sincere delivery hit home, giving you something to readily relate to such as the wearing effect of today’s pressures in “Anxiety.”
The album’s title, taken from a line in “White Man’s World,” is a sarcastic swipe at the controlling aspects of the music industry in Music City. It’s refreshing to find that he still reveals that kind of angst, seen early in Isbell’s career with the Drive-by Truckers in tunes like “Never Gonna Change” or “Soldiers Get Strange” with this same band. This album is every bit as good as his previous two, and actually a tad better musically and melodically. I was just looking for him bring even more fire, angst, and rock and roll.