The Complete Guide to Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell, unquestionably one of the best songwriters today, has grown out of the songwriting factory of the band the Drive By Truckers to create his own legacy as a solo artist and with his band, the 400 Unit.
You can see my first post about the Truckers here (although I've expanded Isbell's best songs to include 12 in total).
Without further ado, here are the best 12 songs from Jason Isbell, presented in (roughly) chronological order:
1. "Never Gonna Change"
This song is pure grit, as Isbell documents the sentiments of hard livin' southerners. This sense of muscle and menacing toughness is emphasized by the loudness of the song, as the pull of the lead chords let the band rev it's engines. Beneath this tough veneer, however, is a kid who was abused by his dad and whose brother is wrapped up in a life of crime.
It's astounding that Isbell had the capacity to write a song like "Outfit" while in his early 20s. The song, which takes the form of an advice letter from father to son, is littered with references to working as a painter, the Beatles, family, air conditioning repair, tech school, mustangs, and heroin-all delivered through Isbell's rolling vocals and melodic guitar work. Moral territory is firmly established, defended, and canonized in this fine song.
This is perhaps Isbell's most cinematic song. The opening scene is set by song minor chords and slow-heartbeat drums as he sings "let the night air cool you off/ lean your head back and try to cough". Here, the young songwriter uses the tragic stories of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of the Band to reflect on anxieties regarding his own hard living and alcoholism.
4. "Goddamn Lonely Love"
"Goddamn Lonely Love" finds a young Jason Isbell weary from the road, as he laments his aimless life over some out of tune lead guitars, swooning organ, and resigned vocals. Isbell says he's "not really drowning/ because I can see the beach from here", a slim recognition of hope for the future.
5. "Dress Blues"
Here, Isbell zooms in on a small southern town and a young man they lost in the Iraq war. The song, which easily could've been overly sentimental, instead paints a tear jerking portrait of the human cost of a "Hollywood War". Here, "nobody shows up to protest/ just sniffle and stare".
6. "The Magician"
By the time Jason Isbell wrote "the Magician", he'd been kicked out of the Drive By Truckers and divorced his wife. You can hear him picking up the pieces here, as he pens a story about a street wandering magician searching for a spiritual home. The chorus during this song is as sweet as any Isbell has written, as he sings "I am an orphan, man/ but ain't we all/ I know there's somewhere worse than here" over a steady acoustic guitar melody and sweetly picked banjo. Isbell's still emotionally down in the count but you can sense redemption is around the corner.
7. "Alabama Pines"
This catches Isbell on the road, right before the time in which he would obtain his sobriety, meandering his way home along the back roads. One gets the sense that he is done with life on the road, done with living in shabby apartments where the "AC doesn't work" and the parking lot is "loud at night". Here, he's accompanied by his future wife and musician Amanda Shires.
8. "Flying Over Water"
Isbell first real fist-in-the-air singalong since "Never Gonna Change", except this time he's not down in the ditch fighting in the south, he's literally above it. Newly sober Isbell has shifted to higher concerns, reflecting on his love life from the sky above in which the world below "looks so organized and brave". A minor chord lament at the end of the song keeps it from being an emotional triumph, grounding the song in thought and pause to a powerful effect as he asks "did we leave our love behind?".
9. "Different Days"
"Different Days" like "Flying Over Water" is also off of Isbell's 2013 album Southeastern. It's Isbell's first sober record, so while much of the lyrical content is reflective of that fact, his sharper than ever songwriting skills here have the flexibility to shed light on a variety of life's circumstances. This mostly acoustic track featured what is probably one of Isbell's most arresting opening lines:"staring at the pictures of the runaways on the wall/ seems like these days you couldn't run away at all".
10. "Speed Trap Town"
Another acoustic ballad gem, this track shows Isbell is full short story mode. Here, Isbell's eye for detail is stronger than ever as he recounts a man's leaving of a small town after there's "no one left to ask if I'm alright". Anyone who's been far from home with no family can relate. A tasteful and road-traveling guitar solo adds some punctuation to this A+ ballad.
|The author bouncing from a speed trap town in SC in a 1997 Mazda. May 2016.|
11. "Something More Than Free"
The title track to Isbell's 2015 album updates "Outfit" into an absolute killer of a tune about the working man's dignity, at least on face level. In "Outfit" Isbell payed homage to his roots. Merle Haggard's "Working Man's Blues" was a blue collar lament. "Something More than Free" trumps them all as a statement of profound spirituality, hope, and longing.
12. "Hope on the High Road"
Isbell's most recent single ahead of a new album in June, "Hope on the High Road" seems to mark yet another shift in Isbell's lyrical focus. Here, he proclaims that he has "heard enough of the white man's blues/ I sang enough about it myself", a refreshing and politically aware refrain from a decent man, a father, and husband. This is a positive jam.