Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell always seemed like he was on the cusp of something special, an achievement that came to pass with 2013’s Southeastern, an album which topped many a year end list. Album number five pulls the promise of greatness even closer. From learning his trade with Drive By Truckers he's fought alcoholism, found sobriety and built a family life but if his 2013 effort was laced with melancholy and dark places, Something More Than Free feels lighter, though listen carefully and the themes are at times just as challenging.
Foremost though this is a towering record - a sustaining of quality that points toward Isbell being nailed on as one of the greats of this age. ‘Children Of Children’, a rumination on the relationship between parent and child, says all you need to know. Beautifully heartbreaking (“I was riding on my mother's hip / She was shorter than the corn / All the years I took from her / Just by being born”) the exceptional musicianship explodes into an extended coda of Isbell’s soaring guitar. It's one of many spine-tingling moments, scattered right across the running time.
That masterpiece nestles snugly between the equally bracing but more jubilant sounding ‘How To Forget’ and ‘The Life you Chose’, each taking opposite views on relationships past and their relationship with the present (“Are you living the life you chose? / Are you living the life that chose you?”). Nicely summing up the central strength of the record, these two tracks have melodies you can hum and lyrics that linger. The input of roots producer du jour, Dave Cobb, can’t be ignored either; he give the voice the room it needs to breath and judges the amount of solo guitar perfectly.
At times Isbell takes on well worn themes, but on his own terms. ‘Speed Trap Town’ is a forlorn view on small town USA while ‘Flagships’ is his take on lasting relationships (“Baby let's not live to see it fade / I'll cancel all the plans I've ever made / I'll drive and you can ride in the back seat / And we'll call ourselves the flagship of the fleet”). He even finds time to lament the defunct Centro-Matic on ‘To A Band I Loved’. It's the former Drive-by Trucker at his lyrically clear (“And somehow you put down my fears on a page / When I still had nothing to say / And how I miss you today.”)
After a great album, and Southeastern is a great album, the follow up is always a challenge. Not for Isbell though - the Alabama native has sustained, if not improved, on that with Something More Than Free. It’s the sound of an artist fully grown and at the peak of his powers and the result is one of 2015's finest.