Epic ambition fully achieved on an album that is another classic to add to a catalogue already filled with great work.
As the winner of our writers’ poll of Americana albums of the 21st Century and the Best international act of 2022 according to our readers a new album by Jason Isbell is always going to be an event at AUK.
The intense album opener ‘Death Wish’ “is about being in love with someone suffering from depression, with a powerful universal undercurrent about the fragility of life and the power and limits of love.” That sets the tone for an album that he describes as a “collection of grown-up songs: Songs about adult love, about change, about the danger of nostalgia and the interrogation of myths, about cruelty and regret and redemption”. That’s an ambitious target for a set of what after all are just songs. “There is something about boundaries on this record,” says Isbell. “As you mature, you still attempt to keep the ability to love somebody fully and completely while you’re growing into an adult and learning how to love yourself.”
And by the second song ‘King of Oklahoma’ you feel confident that he’s going to live up to the ambition. With Amanda Shires guesting on fiddle, this song has the epic feel of the best 70s Dylan. Think Rolling Thunder Revue, with guitar and violin solos trading places through the song. The acoustic country tune ‘Strawberry Woman’ takes simple lyrics written in rhyming couplets adds them to a delicate tune with flashes of slide guitar and harmonica to accent the words. “I remember you looking up at me, drinking Irish whiskey on the Irish sea, and we walked through weather, and we walked through time. Strawberry woman with her hand in mine”. Magical.
The soulful ‘Middle Of The Morning’ follows that, and flips the sound to something that could have come out of Muscle Shoals in about 1971. The grown-up themes continue on ‘Save the World’. “Swear you’ll save the world when I lose my grip. Tell me you’re in control. Swear you’ll say the word when I start to slip. You’ll be the first to know”. If there’s a step forward on this album it is in the clarity of his writing. Taking big themes and making them relatable. The desperation in his voice on this song underlines just how good a singer, and writer Isbell has become in recent years.
‘If You Insist’ again features Shires’ fiddle and follows the words, in a similar way to Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’. This, as with some of the other songs, could easily have been overplayed and become loud and bombastic. That it hasn’t is tribute to Isbell’s production, having taken this job on himself rather than regular producer, David Cobb. He has conjured some cohesive band performances from the 400 Unit, everyone plays just what is needed on each song. ‘Volunteers’ and ‘Vestavia Hills’ have echoes of acoustic Springsteen, but Isbell is very much his own man. ‘Vestavia Hills’, named for a town in Alabama, is a song about the isolation and frustration of 21st Century life. Both that and ‘This Ain’t It’, come across as great lost Rolling Stones songs, with chopping electric chords and Isbell’s strident, powerful voice. ‘Miles’ is another minor epic and closes the album with a song that blends Neil Young guitar with almost Beatles harmonies.
AUK’s writers and readers are united in their love for Jason Isbell, and this album will do nothing to slow that down. You can expect to see this at the top of the polls again come Christmas.