ALBUM: Something More Than Free
ARTIST: Jason Isbell
Album release date: July 17, 2015
Getting Clean for Love
“If you don’t mind doing this, I ask you a small favor. Imagine who you think I would be if I never took another drink. Imagine how I would talk to you, how I would listen; how I would look, even. Imagine the things I would say to our child if we ever had one. Really think about it. Try to visualize it. . . I sure hope you’re still mine when you get this letter. If not, call me up. I’m sure I’ll be waiting for you, somewhere.”
These are the words from just one of many letters written by Jason Isbell to his then-girlfriend-now-wife, Amanda Shires, while he was in rehab recovering from alcoholism. It was at her urging and consistency that Isbell’s life began to turn around, and with sobriety has come an even deeper and more profuse palate of inspiration and lyrical giftedness in the 36-year-old Southern folk-rocker. His 2013 release, Southeastern, is an unflinching, humbling, and gorgeously articulated look into an honest man’s soul in the wake of finally getting clean, and it was widely well-received by fans of rock, folk, and Americana alike. In 2015, he released Something More Than Free, which has garnered significant attention and accolades- and rightfully so.
The Vibrancy of Mortality
My first experience with Isbell was last year at the Ann Arbor folk festival. It was readily apparent that his gift for songwriting was unparalleled, even amongst a lineup of many richly talented musicians. The entire theatre fell hush as he sang the mesmerizing and disturbing song “Live Oak,” a song about an outlaw murderer, accompanied by nothing save his guitar and a wan white light beaming down on him. He had us rapt, like children: the bleak imagery of the story he told unfolded with all the clarity of a lucid dream, and the sorrow evoked by the song seemed to find an endless pool of inspiration in the heart of this ordinary looking man. So much shadow described by an undeniably sincere individual: somehow the incongruence was edifying, perhaps because Isbell represented our mortality to us, while simultaneously contradicting it by manifesting such lively giftedness.
Born in Alabama to a young single mother, Isbell grew up being influenced by the musical tastes of his Grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher who used to have Jason play rhythm guitar for him while he sang ancient spirituals for hours on end in the evenings. Though secular music wasn’t allowed in their home, Isbell has said that 80s pop music captured his imagination as a kid, and that his musical tastes were further broadened by a music teacher from grade-school who had seen “something like 300 Rolling Stones concerts” and who would occasionally hand out mixtapes or discuss the insensibility of REM. After working at Fame studios in Muscle Shoals during his twenties, he became a member of a rockband, the The Driveby Truckers, for about six years. It was during this time that Isbell’s “celebratory drinking” turned into an addiction, and hard drugs entered the picture as well. He admits that he remembers little of this period of his life, other than that things began unraveling. Still, his writing and playing were prolific, and caught the attention of Amanda Shires, a violinist and songwriter, who eventually became his wife as well as part of his ensemble.
Clear Eyed & Blue Collar
His latest album, the aforementioned Something More Than Free, was released in 2015 and quickly sped up the charts, reaching no.1 on the Top Rock Albums, Top Country Albums, and Folk Albums charts, and went on to win a Grammy for best Americana Album of 2016. Isbell’s trademark transparency and quality song-writing are as clear-eyed and blue-collar as ever before, and the production is rich yet restrained, ala Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker.
The album unfolds like a collection of thematic essays, painting stark pictures of down-and-out characters who live their lives just above the surface of massive inner turmoil. I can’t help but think of Steinbeck when I listen to Isbell: the late author similarly had a knack for revealing the heart of things with a mere handful of carefully chosen words. When asked why he chooses to write songs that favor desolation, Isbell responded, “The people who are fine don’t need a voice: it’s the people who are having a hard time who need to be heard.”
Themes of regret, open-ended dissolution (whether personal or relational), maintaining a sense of valor in the midst of strife, fidelity, and salvaging the broken pieces of former plans and hopes are the main sources of inspiration for this particular set of songs, which feel like they’ve sprung from Isbell’s journal pages at certain points, and at other points like they’ve sprung from my own (and, likely, from the journal of anyone who listens with an attentive ear). He’s singing from the perspective of fatherhood, now, and with the reflectiveness of sobriety. The song Flagship is a favorite of mine, as it explores the nature of commitment and fidelity: the phenomenon of remaining true to one person is more than simply “hanging in there”; it involves actively striving to rediscover the other again and again. “You gotta try and keep yourself naive: in spite of all the evidence, believe. Volunteer to lose touch with the world, and focus on one solitary girl.” In contrast to this expression of commitment – reflective of his relationship with his wife – another song, Children of Children, offers an introspective sketch of Isbell’s own mother, who was only 17 when she bore him and soon thereafter was divorced from his father. “How could we expect the two to stay in love when neither knew the meaning of the difference between sacred and profane?” Isbell asks, obliquely feeling the burden of his mother’s loneliness and pain as a single parent. Speedtrap Town captures the stagnancy of life in a highway town, painting resigned but evocative images. It hints at death, abandonment, and a yearning to begin again.
Isbell’s voice is strong and gravelly, attractively bent by inflections, and easily trusted. His songwriting reveals himself to be the quintessential “everyman”, the man who has been to the bottom of the barrel and who, thanks to love and its merciful demands, has made it back up into the light. There is a refreshing agenda-less-ness to his stories, which neither thump anyone the back nor stand on soapboxes so as to demonize whatever ideologies he doesn’t personally adhere to. This is the kind of man who knows who he is and where he stands, but who has the wisdom and humility to know that everyone he meets is someone who knows something he doesn’t.
In closing, it’s worth noting that Isbell and his wife Amanda welcomed their first daughter last year. They gave her a name that carries the weight of innumerable stories and epitomizes the concept of salvaging what was once lost. They named her Mercy.