Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

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 who’s 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.

Amanda Shires

"Let's not give away what all the songs are about," requests Amanda Shires via email — shortly after an hour-long interview discussing exactly that. "I think I prefer for the listener to decide for themselves what stuff means, because I always hate it when I think a song is about a horse, and then it turns out to be a damn trip to France …"

And so, by artist request, there will be no handy track-by-track cheat sheet for Shires' new Carrying Lightning. But if you really can't deduce what the songs are all about on your own, then consider yourself equally blessed and cursed, because odds are you've never been knocked on your ass by the wrecking ball of human desire — the kind so lovingly bottled by the young Texas songwriter in the album-opening "Swimmer, Dreams Don't Keep":

"April was the last time I think I saw you
You were carrying lightning
The way you walked into the room,
If I was a flower I would've opened up and bloomed
I say I don't care, but I'm a liar
Look how easy a heart can catch on fire …"

That same charge of romantic/erotic tension courses throughout the entire album, which sways from innocent daydream ("Swimmer") to restless longing ("Love Be a Bird") to explosive lust ("Shake the Walls") to blissful contentment ("Sloe Gin") and, finally, back to wistful fantasy ("Lovesick I Remain"). The specific, behind-the-scenes details — such as who or what inspired each particular song, or to what extent each stems from Shires' own life vs. her sheer imagination — need not be divulged or even probed, because, as the mysterious little messenger in "Ghost Bird," "all feathers and a heartbeat," puts it best, "Baby, we're all running from the same things: broken hearts, broken homes, the tired and the loneliness …"

"I guess the theme of the record as a whole is just, 'get wrecked in love — and be loved," says Shires. "Or, to steal a quote from Sylvia Plath: 'Wear your heart on your skin in this life.' That's my platform."

The quote may be borrowed, and the emotional terrain of the songs universally relatable, but Shires' voice is distinctly her own. Her Texas twang and fetching vibrato ("less goat, more note!" she teases herself with a laugh) can dance playfully around a melody or haunt a line like a mournful ghost, and she deftly employs her fiddle/violin, ukulele and even whistling skills to similar effect. The resulting sound is a beautiful but woozily surrealistic swoon — as well befits an artist who cites Leonard Cohen and alt-country dark horse Richard Buckner as two of her biggest musical influences. Or, as a review in Americana UK once observed: "At times, her energetic, jittery vocals and eccentric lyrical subjects mark her out as a young female heir to the godfather of strange, Tom Waits. In her more conventional moments, Shires sounds like the weird young niece of Dolly Parton."

In fact, Shires is just a down-to-earth, self-effacing West Texas gal currently residing in Nashville, working her tail off trying to find her niche in the music industry as an independent artist. In the recent Hollywood movie Country Strong, she played the fiddle player in the band backing Gwyneth Paltrow's fictional country superstar. In real life, Shires runs with a decidedly more left-of-mainstream-type crowd, including Jason Isbell (she sings and plays fiddle on the former Drive-By Trucker's latest, Here We Rest) and Justin Townes Earle (she's the lovely model gracing the cover of his 2008 debut, The Good Life). She also maintains strong ties to the Lone Star State, recording and occasionally performing with the Lubbock band Thrift Store Cowboys (which she joined while still in college) and sometimes even teaching fiddle at Texas Playboys' singer Tommy Allsup's summer music camp. She was only 15 the first time she played onstage with the Playboys (the Western swing band made famous by the late Bob Wills) — a mere five years after she coerced her father into buying her first fiddle, a lime-green Chinese instrument from a pawn shop in dusty downtown Mineral Wells, Texas.

In 2005, while still a regular member of the Thrift Store Cowboys, Shires released her solo debut, a mostly instrumental showcase for her traditional fiddle chops called Being Brave. But the fertile Texas music scene was overripe with side-person work for the talented young player and backup singer — so much so that Shires feared sliding into a complacency that, left unchecked, threatened to stunt her growth as a songwriter. So she relocated to Nashville — "to get uncomfortable and make myself grow some guts," as she put it once — and dived headlong into the process of writing and recording the first two albums to really put her on the roots-music map: 2008's Sew Your Heart with Wires, a collection of duets co-written and recorded with singer-songwriter Rod Picott; and what Shires calls her "true" solo debut, 2009's West Cross Timbers. Both were met with enthusiastic reviews and radio support, with the former being voted the fourth best debut album of 2008 by FAR (Freeform American Roots) Chart reporters and the later reaching No. 21 on the Americana Music Association Chart. The Gibson Guitar company featured Shires on their website as one of 2009's breakout artists, and No Depression called West Cross Timbers one of the 50 best releases of the year.

Shires was eager to get right back into the studio, but a busy touring schedule — averaging 120-160 dates a year, including at least one or two annual trips to Europe — necessitated that the follow-up to West Cross Timbers, be recorded piecemeal. "We did it over the course of 16 months in multiple sessions, just coming back and forth home to Nashville between tours," she says of Carrying Lightning, which she co-produced with Picott and David Henry at Henry's True Tone Studios. Fortunately, although it was hard to find time to lay down tracks, writer's block was never an issue for her.

"Some people only write when they're at home, but I just write, whenever or however I can," Shires says. "We ended up recording 20-something songs for the album, and the hardest part was trying to decide which ones to use. But having the whole process take so long is what ultimately helped give the record its shape and focus. I was really able to think about which songs fit together the best, as opposed to just, 'I'm going into the studio to make a record, and in two weeks I'll be done.' I had a lot of time to sleep on this one."

In fact, even now that the record's mastered, pressed and ready for release, Shires still isn't quite finished with it. Taking full advantage of the DIY promotional opportunities afforded by the age of social media, she plans to film videos for every song on the album, with "When You Need a Train It Never Comes" and "Lovesick I Remain" already uploaded to YouTube and more on the way. "We just shot one for 'Shake the Walls' today, and 'Ghostbird' will be next," she says. "I want 'Ghostbird' to be animated."

What's more, she's still haunted by some of the songs that didn't make the Carrying Lightning cut — if only because they didn't quite fit the theme of the rest of the record. Some of these she hopes to release before year's end as a separate EP.

"They were just too dark and would have seemed too random, I guess," she says of the orphan tunes. How dark? One of them apparently involved a girl getting her skin sliced off.

"Actually, that one was kind of a love song," she admits with a sheepish chuckle. "Maybe I should have left that one on the record!"

"Godfather" Waits would be proud.

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