It’s been a difficult few weeks for the southern states of America, which have been embroiled in the Confederate flag debate following the tragic shootings in South Alabama. A tough time to embrace your southern identity in public perhaps, but Alabama born songwriter Jason Isbell is able to put more of a positive spin on the region in his latest record.
Something More Than Free is a celebration of small town America, the people and the places – largely stories about those hoping for the best and trying to feel their way through life. A member of alt-country rockers Drive-by Truckers from 2002, he bowed out in 2007 leaving a trail of impressive hits as well as a fare share of problems with alcohol.
Since putting himself straight in rehab, Isbell has continued to demonstrate himself as an impressive storyteller and songwriter and his fifth record looks set to propel him further up the americana ladder of success. A beautiful songsmith who combines touching vocals with his simple, but extremely effective backing band, the tracks on Something More Than Free would go down just as well on your front porch as they would at Nashville’s famous weekly radio concert, the Grand Ole Opry.
While it’s the little things in life that Isbell likes to centre his lyrics around, it’s often the tales of the downhearted, downbeat and down on luck that capture his attention. He’s able to put himself in the shoes of the tired labourer, broken-hearted lover and confused spiritualist without ever making the lyrics sound contrived. Whether it’s his own narrative or the lives of others he’s exploring, his words cut right to the bone with searing honesty.
Mid-album track Children of Children touches on the relationship between mother and son, including the heart wrenching line “All the years you took from her, just by being born”. Later on in title song Something More Than Free, he discusses the insecurities of the modern blue-collar worker, singing “I don’t think of why I’m here or why it hurts, I’m just lucky to have the work.” It summarises modern America in all its harsh contradictions, a country rich beyond belief but still struggling to provide jobs for all.
Musically he’s packed in even more melodic highs than on 2013’s critically acclaimed Southeastern record, with 24 Frames and Life You Choose instantly pricking up the ears. On the latter he sings “Are you living the life you chose, are you living the life that chose you?” to a past lover – it’s a striking and vulnerable centrepiece to the song that stops you in your tracks. The style of the music remains similar throughout, with Isbell’s acoustic guitar and vocal leading proceedings while being accompanied by his perfectly nuanced backing band, The 400 Unit, who combine bass, piano and violin to spectacular effect. By utilising classic country song structures as well as his ear for a catchy melody, Jason’s created an album that’s poignant as well as uplifting and is sure to see his star burn brighter.
If the album had a slogan, it would probably be along the lines of “Life is beautiful, but it kicks you in the teeth”. What Isbell does so well, is take the woes and worries of the day-to-day and turn them into something life-affirming. As much as we’d like to think our lives are much more troublesome and complicated than in the past, the key problems and concerns of the everyday man remain the same and this is an album that would resonate as well in 1965 as it does today. If the characters in his songs are still trying to figure out the best road in life, it seems that Jason has finally found his path.
‘Something More Than Free’ is out now on Southeastern Records