Every once in a while, and not that often, a popular musician comes along whose work is both profoundly personal and evocative of the larger moment, merging the specifics of lived experience in a particular time and place to the realities of our shared journey as a community, a people. The work of such artists as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Kurt Cobain – and now Jason Isbell, I would argue, with his new album Something More Than Free – spreads irresistibly outward from the soul, that private well of vision and emotion, into the broader realm of cultural history, sharpening our ability to see, expanding our ability to feel, and restoring our sense that we belong not only to ourselves but to an extended spiritual family. The songs create a space to be together, and closer together than we were before.

To fans and the music press, the personal story surrounding Isbell's last, breakthrough album, Southeastern, is widely known and easily reprised. A troubled young troubadour, newly married, stepped away from the darkness of addiction into a new, uncertain life of clarity and commitment, reflecting ruefully on his hard won victories and the price he paid attaining them. It was an album of aching elegance, marked by the sort of lyrical precision that brought to mind certain literary masters of the melancholy American scene, from Flannery O'Connor to Raymond Carver. By avoiding the hairy-chested bombast of arena country music while crafting music with solid melodic contours Isbell created an album, and a sound, of memorably infectious empathy.

With Something More Than Free, he stretches himself further, greatly expanding the boundaries of Isbell country, that territory of the heart and mind where people strive against their imperfections, and simultaneously against their circumstances, in a landscape that's often unfriendly to their hopes. As always, he starts with the subjects he knows best: the dignity of work, the difficulty of love, the friction between the present and the past. "I found myself going back," he says, explaining the direction he chose to take, "to family and close personal relations." The opening cut, "It Takes a Lifetime", so loose and summery and optimistic, invites us into this circle of kindred souls, instantly making us feel at home. And while Isbell may be singing about himself or someone else whose inner life he's privy to when he mentions fighting 'the urge to live inside my telephone,' isn't that everyone's challenge nowadays?

Once you've cleaned up your act, what should your next action be, and your next? That's one of the questions handled in "24 Frames", the album's bracing second cut, whose narrator seems to be managing life deliberately, step by step, with peril all around. "You thought God was an architect. Now you know/ He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow." The danger of self-destruction is always near, and the way to defeat it seems to be putting self-seeking and vanity aside and taking the next right action, however simple. "After you've looked your fears in the eye," Isbell tells me on the phone, "What's important now?" Maybe he knows and maybe he's still learning – this isn't an album of easy certainties – but what makes his songwriting so rich and gripping, besides its observational precision, is the honesty of his inquiries. He doesn't flinch. He doesn't cheat.
The album – and it is an album, a unified musical document, not a grab bag of would-be singles ("I don't write songs to be played at sporting events," Isbell cracks) – relaxes and deepens as it goes along, offering some of the pleasures of a fine novel, including a collection of sharp vignettes that stick in the mind, impossible to shake. "Flagship", a spare and haunting meditation on the fragility of long-term love, ranges around a faded, old hotel for images of passion that has cooled. "The lights down in the lobby, they don't shine/ They just flicker while the elevator whines." "Children of Children", a masterful creation that floods the ears with bold and rolling soundscapes reminiscent of CSNY, finds the singer examining old family photos and dwelling on his own unwitting influence on his mother's interrupted youth. "I was riding on my mother's hip/she was shorter than the corn. And all the years you took from her/just by being born." That last line is as devastating as they come, a thought that, once voiced, can't be forgotten – and that we're surprised wasn't voiced before. Isbell's songwriting is like that, at its most poetic when it's most plainspoken. His lines and his lyrics fall into place like the tumblers of a lock.

The title track, which he tells me on the phone was inspired by his father -- a hard-working man who won't let up -- is more than a tribute to a beloved parent; it speaks to the outlook of a generation that has seen, in Isbell's words, "The American dream go from the light at the end of a tunnel to all tunnel." As usual, Isbell travels outward from the specific case to a more comprehensive human perspective. "I start with an individual, he says, "and then I try to write for everybody." The song nails its subject from the moment it begins. "When I get home from work, I'll call up all my friends/ and we'll bust up something beautiful we'll have to build again." The man in question, a born provider who finds himself on Sunday "too tired to go to church," is politically conscious of his situation ("The hammer needs the nail, and the poor man's up for sale") but grateful for what he's able to bring home. In this, he's like Isbell, who told me that in his writing he tries "to be angry without being bitter and emotional without being maudlin." He probably doesn't have to try too hard. For all the darkness that leaks into his songs (only because it exists out in the world) Isbell's fundamental orientation is still toward the light, even when it's fast receding. His humanity has an almost uncanny feel, as though he's lived three lives for everybody else's one. He believes in the basic power of his vocation as a writer, singer, player, and artist to conjure wholeness from a world of fragments. He's the musician we need now, and whom we've waited for: candid, vulnerable, outraged, literate, and just romantic enough to carry on in a period of rising disenchantment. His time has come, and so has ours. Listening to Isbell we also hear ourselves.

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls

For three long and often lonely years of life on the road, plying a brand of honest and passionate folk/punk, Frank Turner continued to rise to prominence with an ever increasing following. But it was in the sweaty climes of the Lock Up Stage at Reading and Leeds 2008 that his solo career really started to take off. Inside the packed out tents, heaving with adoring fans and intrigued passers-by, Frank led the congregation in a mass sing-a-long; a stirring set that not only sparked the interest of the British mainstream but resonated unassumingly across the pond as a wealth of American punk bands watched approvingly from the sidelines.

No stranger to the festival, Frank had not only played the Lock Up Tent with former hardcore band Million Dead back in 2005 but also as a tentative solo artist in 2007 when debut album ‘Sleep Is For The Week’ was just an underground success. Within the following year, Frank’s popularity grew with yet more touring and the release of second album 'Love Ire & Song' in March 08. He started to play larger headline shows and develop the live band that he was looking for.

The profits of all his hard work came together that festival weekend; it kicked started a new wave of interest and thanks to the unwavering support from Radio 1 DJs Mike Davies and Steve Lamacq, the rest of Radio 1 began to follow suit. Soon enough when Frank’s single 'Long Live The Queen' – taken from ‘Love Ire & Song' – was released in October, it made the R1 C-list, was Single Of The Week on Sara Cox’s show and helped sell out Frank’s largest UK headline tour culminating in a bursting-over-capacity-finale at London’s Scala. The following single 'Reasons Not To Be An Idiot' released in January of this year eclipsed those successes by graduating to the R1’s B-list, 6Music’s A-list and XFM’s daytime playlist, prompted a Live Lounge session for Sara Cox, a Hub Session for George Lamb as well as making iTunes Single Of The Week all helping to recruit a new army of Frank followers.

It was also during this time that sections of the US punk fraternity began to take notice. Having watched the infamous Lock Up Stage set at Reading and Leeds, Vinnie from Less Than Jake got in contact asking to release 'The First Three Years' album (a collection of all early and previously unreleased material, live tracks and b-sides released in the UK in December 08 on his vinyl label Paper and Plastick. Chuck Ragan took him on the Revival Tour with Tim Barry across America, he did a few shows with up and coming stars Fake Problems and New Jersey boys The Gaslight Anthem invited him to support them on their huge UK and European dates in the early part of this year. It was evident that word was spreading throughout the punk scenes both sides of the Atlantic and by the time Frank flew in to Austin, Texas for the annual industry showcase SXSW in March, a whole new chapter in his story was about to begin.

Frank’s brand of folk songwriting, catchy melodies and punk passion had reached the ears of the CEO of US independent label Epitaph Records, Bad Religion’s legendary guitarist: Brett Gurewitz. Excited by what he had heard and seen when Frank headlined LA’s notorious Viper Rooms in March, Gurewitz got in contact and soon enough plans were formulated and a worldwide deal was inked. With loyalty and integrity firmly intact, Frank kept his relationship with his existing label Xtra Mile Recordings for all releases in the UK and Ireland and so the two labels will work closely for what will undoubtedly be an exciting new era in Frank’s ever evolving career.

“Frank Turner’s music is a revelation to me,” says Gurewitz. “I can’t stop listening to it. It’s a real privilege to get out there and help Xtra Mile spread the Frank Turner gospel.”

Epitaph is the perfect home for Frank. With its fiercely independent spirit, rich in punk and hardcore history it is also home to the song-writing talents of Nick Cave and Tom Waits on sister label Anti; mirroring Frank’s cross-over appeal of punk ethics and strong song-writing abilities. Inspired by the likes of Bad Religion as a kid, this really is a dream come true for Frank.

So with this exciting plot in place the year ahead is looking pretty good. His third studio album, ‘Poetry Of The Deed’, released worldwide in September, sees Frank venture in a more rock direction recruiting his outstanding band for the recording process. Performing live has always been at the very heart of the Frank Turner experience and whilst he’s still writing all the songs, they will be recorded live to help bring that experience to the album. Grammy nominated producer Alex Newport – who has previously worked with Death Cab For Cutie, At The Drive-In, Two Gallants – is on production duties after contacting Frank directly asking if they could work together. Coinciding nicely with the release are tours in America and Europe as well as the massive UK headline tour in October, where having previously supported The Gaslight Anthem at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, he will return triumphantly to headline for the last night of the tour.

Before that though, another summer of further touring and festivals lies ahead. He will jet off to the East Coast of America to support The Offspring for 12 dates of their tour in July, performing solo to potentially 30,000 people. He’ll play at Camp Bestival and Jersey Live fest and return full circle to this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival. This time, however, he will play the larger Radio 1/NME tent midway through the afternoon and judging by what happened last year it’ll be another defining moment in this story of one beardy man and his acoustic guitar. The best is yet to come.

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