Here’s a little confession: I’ve never found any album reviews that come close to the experience of hearing the album, and therefore I’ve never wanted to get into the habit of writing reviews.
Now on the other hand, I love writing and reading about music and the people who spend their lives making it.
Digging into the passions, influences, effects and narratives of the music world is endlessly fascinating. The process of creating something that can touch millions of people on such a deep level will always be a curiosity to most of us.
I’ll spend an hour reading a profile of a musician in Rolling Stone before spending a second reading their album reviews.
That said, there are some albums being released this year that I have to write about, and I will do so with ease and joy. They are powerhouse albums by musicians who are spearheading a cultural shift in what we think of as country music. Chris Stapleton’s latest album, “Traveller,” was one, and we now have another with Jason Isbell’s newest release, “Something More Than Free.”
The first few seconds of “Something More Than Free” alerts Isbell fans that this album is coming from a completely different mental place than his critically acclaimed previous album, “Southeastern” (released June 2013).
The swinging, joyful buoyancy of the opening melody riff is in stark contrast to the droning descension of the opening notes of “Southeastern.” Isbell is a musician who has found his own truth and identity so deeply that you can trust the opening notes of an album to set the thematic tone.
Both albums, “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free,” complete a story of a man who hit rock-bottom with alcoholism and worked his way back up to a high-water mark in both his career and personal life.
Married with a little girl on the way and up to his ears in critical praise, Isbell dove headfirst into both the dark and the light of the American dream, and there’s no one better to weave those oscillating passions into such raw, honest music. Isbell has a blue-collar mind that can knock you back with plain language and 360-degree views of American life.
“Southeastern” was a snapshot of a man with nothing to lose. And if you’re going to bet on someone, find a person who’s passionate, talented and has nothing to lose, as they are willing to throw everything out there. That album, along with his newfound sobriety, was a longshot payoff that changed his destiny with seismic ruptures.
How does one follow up such a success without either copying it or changing things so much that it isn’t recognizable? Even more importantly, how do you match the depths of emotional honesty when your life has turned around and you’re happy? For Isbell, you bear witness to the struggles and trappings of small-town life with unflinching clarity. You give voice and meaning to people who are told by society they have neither.
It may be the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood realizing for the first time that he has freedom to leave his hometown in “Speed Trap Town”:
And it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight
And there’s no one left to ask if I’m all right
I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide
If there’s anything that can’t be left behind.
Or, as in one of the most powerful songs of the album, “Children of Children,” which has an undeniable vibe of CSN&Y with its lofty, punctuated bass line, Isbell speaks to the inherited guilt of the impoverished. This type of guilt is so present that it seems to permeate the water wells of small towns throughout the country.
I was riding on my mother’s hip
She was shorter than the corn
And all the years I took from her
Just by being born
Some will call Isbell a storyteller, but they’re wrong. Jimmy Buffett and John Prine are storytellers. Isbell steps into the skin of his characters and brings back the unconscious truth behind the story. An Isbell song is Daniel Day Lewis becoming Abraham Lincoln. You forget who is who, and in the end, you’ve experienced another life before you even think of resisting.
This is what sets him apart from almost every other songwriter out there and why we’ll be listening to these albums for decades to come.
But through it all, whether it’s his own history of moral failings or his characters’, there’s always a sense of hope, a sense of escape from doomed destiny waiting for those who choose it. In “Southeastern,” he was searching for it; in “Something More Than Free,” he’s bringing it forth.
Brian Paul Swenk writes for The Mountain Times, Bluegrass Today and his own blog, The Lonesome Banjo Chronicles. He plays banjo in the North Carolina-based band, Big Daddy Love, and is an App State graduate with a music industries degree through the Interdisciplinary Studies program.