Something More Than Free is, without a doubt, the album that I have looked forward to most this year. Not that I have wearied of listening to Southeastern or any of Jason Isbell’s music, but I am greedy and I wanted more. The eleven tracks that make up this album do what he excels at. They tell stories and they catch your heart and your ear with their musicianship and wordsmanship. I have had a few months with the album now, so writing a review is somewhat of a challenge. These songs are no longer freshly exposed to judgment. All of the songs are now part of my Isbell vocabulary. Breaking off the album from the rest of his music and trying to create an honest critique is tough. As usual, over on his blog, Dan writes eloquently about what he is hearing in this album. His is a very interesting take on how the struggles that were so clear in Southeastern may still be driving this new album but in a more subtle way.
My huge mad crush on Jason Isbell started in a honky tonk Kansas City roadhouse in 2009. That Jason was very different from the man he is today, but the core of his songwriting that was great in 2009 still shines brilliantly. Whatever your music preference is, there is likely to be at least a song or two on this that you could want in your library.
To pick a favorite on the album, I am going to go with How to Forget. I have to believe that this one is pretty autobiographical. It exposes the challenge of people coming back into your life after your life has been turned around. Because they are so good, I want to put all of the lyrics here, but I will limit myself to the first part:
Give her space, give her speed
Give her anything she needs
Get her out of here
Give her weed, give her wine
Give her anything but time
Get her out of here
She won’t stop telling stories, and most of them are true
She knew me back before I fell for you
I was strained, I was sad, didn’t realize what I had
It was years ago
I was sick, I was scared, I was socially impaired
It was years ago
My past’s a scary movie, I watched and fell asleep
Now I’m dreaming up these creatures from the deep
What I love about this song is that after the part above, he comes back to ask this unwanted visitor if he was good to her. He wants to know if the fact that he now has something great in his life, it makes his leaving her harder. Here are the demons of the past meeting a core of good.
Jason’s last album, Southeastern, had one of the most romantic songs imaginable on it – Cover Me Up. On this album he is back in the swoon game with the song, Flagship. In the song, he sings about seeing an old couple in a broken down hotel sitting close but appearing so far away from each other; he promises to his own partner Baby let’s not ever get that way / I’ll drive you to the ocean every day / We’ll stay up in the presidential suite /And call ourselves the flagship of the fleet / You gotta try and keep yourself naive / In spite of all the evidence believed / And volunteer to lose touch with the world / And focus on one solitary girl. In another part of the song, he goes and gets his cowboy boots polished because his girl likes to see them shine! Who can compete with that, Jason?
Jason Isbell in concert loves his guitars. Like Southeastern, the music of Something More than Free is somewhat spare. It does have some lovely violin interludes provided by his wife, Amanda Shires. Of particular note on that is Hudson Commodore.
Dan hates that this is a classification, but Jason Isbell is typically pegged into the Americana genre of music. He definitely is not country and you can’t put him in the southern rock camp of Drive by Truckers. This album gives you some toe-tapping honky-tonks like If it takes a Lifetime and Palmetto Rose, and some Southern gothic with, Children of Children. In each, his smooth but raspy vocals brings the listener into the story. As he can do so well, he combines Southern good-ol’-boy with brainy troubadour with lines like Jack and Coke in your mama’s car / you were reading The Bell Jar. Listen to this album and you will find hard-working, hard-living, dreamers. Maybe, like me, you will have your own crush on Jason Isbell. I think this album could do it for a new listener.
Before the year ends, I get to see Jason perform two times! That will make three for 2015 for us. I can’t wait to hear how Something More Than Free is transformed in live performances.
Next Up: Ryan Adams 1989