Jason Isbell

Something More Than Free

Written by: TL on 11/08/2015 18:30:14

Alabama-born songwriter Jason Isbell has had himself a considerable career by now, at first with the country rockers Drive-By Truckers and since then as a solo artist, with things until recently having culminated with 2013's "Southeastern", which received multiple awards and widespread critical acclaim. This year Isbell has followed up, though, with another well-received album in "Something More Than Free", which picks up pretty much where "Southeastern" left off.

The range of expression still reaches from rollicking, old-fashioned country and over into more downplayed, contemplative folk-songwriting, and as was the case on "Southeastern", Isbell is at his best when he's doing the latter. Opener "If It Takes A Lifetime", which is perhaps the song most clearly based on Isbell himself, is also the most hokey and toothless, and it is a bit of a shame that it opens the record, as new listeners coming in with skepticism towards country music will likely find fuel for their doubts here. Similarly later tracks like "How To Forget" and "Palmetto Rose" are examples of how things can get a bit kitsch/dad-rock/uncool when Isbell tries at bigger or more energetic tunes.

Looking past those, however, there are songs on here that just as fully demonstrate why Isbell was so lauded for his previous album in the first place. "Flagship" is sentimental and catchy in a simple way, and gets increasingly endearing the more you pay attention to the scenery Isbell conjures up with his lyrics and gentle singing. "Children Of Children" has some of the crushing gravity we expect (having listened to the fantastic "Elephant" from the previous album for instance), lodged in the refrain of "I was riding on my mother's hip, she was shorter than the corn.. All the years I took from her, just by being born". The dreamy bass pattern in the bridge helps too, as does the incredibly soulful guitar soloing that the song indulges in towards the end.

Of further note are also the upbeat "The Life You Chose", asking you if you're "Living the life you chose, or are you living the life that chose you?", and the atmosphere filled "Speed Trap Town", where the narrator comes of age and decides to leave his hometown following a heartbreaking verse about his dying father: "The doctor said daddy wouldn't make it a year, but the holidays are over and he's still here [...] Was a tough state trooper 'til a decade back, when the girl that wasn't momma caused his heart attack. He didn't care about us when he was walking around, just pulling women over in a speed trap town".

Bar the few songs criticised higher up, Isbell's vivid storytelling and elegant, old-school singing style are accompanied throughout by tasteful and mood-setting folk instrumentation. Softly played acoustic guitar and soulfully weeping electric are supported with strings, horns, subtle percussion and occasionally with beautiful female vocal harmonies, and when you combine the carefully textured arrangements with the richness of Isbell's narrative, country honestly has rarely felt more relevant. Once more then, it's only really the songs that the casual fans are supposedly meant to boogie to that hold an Isbell album back, and those hardly weigh the whole thing down too much.


Download: Flagship, Children Of Children, Speed Trap Town
For The Fans Of: Ryan Adams, PJ Bond, The Migrant
Listen: facebook.com/jasonisbellmusic

Release date 17.07.2015
Southeastern Records

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