Music Reviews

posted: June 14, 2017

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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit The Nashville Sound

Southeastern Records, LP or CD
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell goes home on the remarkable The Nashville Sound. While the notion of place has always played a considerable role in the singer/guitarist’s music, the comfort, grounding, and direction it provides on his sixth studio album have never been greater. Economically concise and conversationally poetic, this a record on which Isbell lets us see the prairie grass shift in the breeze, hear the gentle rustling of wind, stare at the big sky overhead, smell the sweetness of ripening corn, and feel the settled dirt on the ground of the very spaces he holds dear. He and his 400 Unit backing band invite everyone to take it all in with deep, patient, relaxing breaths. In a time rife with social and political turmoil in the US and abroad, the work comes on as a reminder of what really matters and how to locate inner peace amidst tumult. As has become his trademark, Isbell stocks the album with candid albeit profound morsels of lived-in advice and logical reflections.

By now, Isbell’s colorful biography, recovery, and rise to Grammy-winning stardom are well-documented, with 2013’s autobiographical Southeastern and, to an extent, 2015’s Something More Than Free chronicling his life cycle. Here, the Alabama native continues to turn his focus away from himself and towards relatable characters and everyday themes addressed with deceiving straightforwardness. “I’ve sung enough about myself,” the 38-year-old states on “Hope the High Road,” the words tucked into a verse like a crisp t-shirt concealed under a sweater and stuffed into a pair of dress jeans. The line is so modest, and passes so quickly, it almost begs to remain unnoticed. Yet the lyrics prove illustrative in terms of approach and substance. Not only does Isbell extend a remarkable songwriting streak, he again displays growth and an ongoing desire to advance the craft.

The protagonists on The Nashville Sound—the title a winking dig at the predominant commercial pop style currently associated with the city, and one oceans apart from the roots-based sonics embraced by Isbell and company—could seemingly coexist on the pages of classic Southern and Midwestern novels. Their faces and backgrounds take shape in the span of just one or two lines, their circumstances and concerns plainly laid out, devoid of ornamentation or excess. Isbell’s steady, calm, reassuring voice underscores their unassuming nature and unpretentious demeanor. The group’s spare, no-frills playing and organic tones complete the settings via illuminating accents and soulful shading. Every note pairs in a seamless fashion, from Isbell’s ace slide-guitar passages to Chad Gamble’s unobtrusive drumming. (Go-to producer and longtime collaborator Dave Cobb again manned the boards and recorded everything at RCA’s Studio A.)

As they have ever since Isbell bowed on the scene in 2003 with “Decoration Day” while a member of the Drive-By Truckers, poignancy, dignity, and sincerity inform his empathetic writing and, in his context of a person’s worth, count for far more than flaws or digressions. On the opening “Last of My Kind,” a rustic tune so cozy it yearns to be played beside a crackling fireplace, the rural-loving narrator wonders aloud as to whether he fits in anywhere as Isbell’s finger-picked acoustic guitar stitches together shimmering, sympathetic scenery suggestive of wide-open fields. A girl, the promise of escape, and fact “ain’t no one from here will follow” provide reasons why the principal in “Tupelo” is Mississippi-bound. Musically, the dust-broom sweep of the easy rhythm and country-inspired melody underscore the relief at hand. Sometimes, a locale’s longed-for identity remains lost to time. The slash-and-burn scrape of “Cumberland Gap” details a lineage of hard drinking, ruinous commercialism, and mind-numbing vices that stand in for former values and traditions. “Remember when we could see the mountain’s peak,” Isbell sings, recalling better days while attempting to hold fast to customs now as faded as the sun-beaten roof of an old Pontiac.

Indeed, Isbell reminds us the past ever fully goes away. It doesn’t necessarily haunt or determine current decisions, yet has a say in defining one’s individuality. On the clever, jaunty, and humorous “Chaos and Clothes,” history assumes the form of ex-lovers and the associated baggage left behind hiding in the subconscious. During the sturm-und-drang of “Anxiety,” the past rears its head as constant worry—a claustrophobia-causing menace looming over pleasure, disrupting sleep, and threatening isolation. Here, even amidst hurricane-force riffs and subterranean bass lines, Isbell again equates home and place with comfort. Throughout the swampy “White Man’s World,” among the most fearless and topical works of Isbell’s career, history involves ugly truths, shaken faiths, and traumatic displacement. But it also leads to a self-awareness and cautious optimism that part the clouds.

Similar strains of mercy and hope emerge throughout The Nashville Sound, most affectingly on the heartfelt ballad “If We Were Vampires” and, most revealingly, on the two closing tracks. On the former, a striking duet between Isbell and his wife/violinist/400 Unit secret weapon Amanda Shires, the couple pledges their love as they acknowledge one partner will likely die before the other all the while imagining how less traumatic the process would be if they were undead beasts. For the  fist-pumping “Hope the High Road” and whirling barn dance “Something to Love,” Isbell aims at sentiments just as serious and lasting.

Arriving at related conclusions in different manners, each song speaks to the importance of not giving up, maintaining bearings, and finding happiness in what you pursue. For Isbell, such solace encompasses home, family, honesty, and simplicity—tenets sturdy enough to withstand almost anything life throws in our path. On The Nashville Sound, Isbell and the 400 Unit give us the front porch, star-strewn sky, sweet harmonies, and memorable songs needed to make the same fulfilling choices. It’s up to us to put it them all to good use.

–Bob Gendron