If “Something More Than Free,” Jason Isbell’s follow-up to 2013’s career-defining album ‘Southeastern’ has a unifying theme it’s finding the everyday beauty in maturity. Yes, Isbell defies contemporary music trends by making his songs about something. His songs fully embody rich narratives that pump blood into lyrics. Words striking in their economy yet not lacking in marrow. Unlike others in the industry he refuses to hide behind crass chart confections or soul-syphoning irony.
This is the stuff of life.
Opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” is a ragtime jaunt on down to the working day punch-clock. The protagonist gives a weary regard on the past (I thought the highway loved me but she beat me like a drum) and embodies a hopeful determination for a better future (I keep my spirits high / find happiness by and by).
The first single “24 Frames” is a perfect example of Isbell’s economy of word and imagery. A lean narrative of diminishing the self in deference to deepen relationships set to fragments of sonic vignettes that shine.
‘Children Of Children’ is an achingly beautiful cut that has an 70’s-era Neil Young dark ferocity about it. The song both celebrates and bucks generational norms with an acoustic guitar and slinky bass giving way to howling slide whirling in the eye of an orchestral string outro.
The title song is soulful ode to pride in purpose. It’s from the view of a blue-collar day laborer, but it just as easily maps to Isbell’s focus and perseverance on mastering the craft in an uncertain industry. “And the day will come when I’ll find a reason, And somebody proud to love a man like me / My back is numb / my hands are freezing / What I’m working for is something more than free.”
In the aftermath of the reprehensible Charleston church shooting South Carolina has becomes a battle ground of the South’s cultural idenity. Isbell’s “Palmetto Rose,” written and recorded before the tragedy, is a swampy funk study of the richness of a culture often mischaracterized. The song gets its title rom the lovely flowers woven from strips of leaves from state tree. At once Isbell gives voice to the street vendors, many African-American, that peddle them and offers up a challenge to the hubris, mostly Anglo, of revising history. “Catch you comin’ out of a King Street store / Bullshit story ’bout the Civil War / You can believe what you wanna believe / But there ain’t no makin’ up a basket weave / Everybody in the tri-county knows / Who makes the best palmetto rose.”
“To The Band That I Loved” may or may not be about his stint in the mighty Drive-By Truckers. The reference to being “22 backwoods years old” jibes with the age he was when he joined the band. The subject moves from the singular “Now I know you’ll be fine on your own” and “Your voice makes the miles melt away” recalls camaraderie shared by Isbell and band members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. But there’s another layer of nuance that makes me believe it’s for his first wife and Drive-By Trucker’s bassist Shonna Tucker. Either way it’s a fine cut that only Isbell knows knows where it’s heart lies. (UPDATE – A Rolling Stone article says “To a Band I Loved…” is about Denton TX’s Centro-Matic. So, never mind! hat tip to Jason Scally @Santascal for the 411.)
Go-to roots music producer Dave Cobb, that helmed ‘Southeastern,” returns to guide the album into aesthetic cohesion and knows enough to stay out of the way and allow Isbell and his band’s humanity to shine through. During the recording Isbell tweeted that he felt the songs on ‘Something More Than Free” reviled those on “Southeastern.” That’s a tall order, and largely subjective. Isbell’s songs paint authentic and poetic worlds in the great southern tradition of storytelling. It’s like picking the best story your grandfather told you on the porch while driking sweet tea in the summer heat.
Some stories might edge out others, but mostly you’re just glade someone’s around that cares enough to tell them.