by Sam Sodomsky, Pitchfork
His new album with the 400 Unit feels a little one-note, but Jason Isbell can still rouse with an anthem and show off his gritty country and even breezy pop skills.
The last time we heard from Jason Isbell, he was mid-revelation. “To a Band That I Loved,” the closing track on 2015’s Something More Than Free, eschewed his usual topics—the south, sobriety, self-acceptance—in favor of something simpler: the healing power of live music. Finding its center at another band’s concert, “To a Band That I Loved” was a new kind of song for Isbell, showcasing the maturing perspective of a songwriter who could summon wisdom from every corner of his psyche. Unlike Southeastern’s rock-bottom ruminations, most of the tracks on Something More Than Free came from a place of contentment, narrated by characters who bounced back from hard times with newfound serenity. “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts,” Isbell sang in the title track, “I’m just lucky to have the work.”
The Nashville Sound, Isbell and the 400 Unit’s full-band follow-up, is, in many ways, a step backward. For one thing, he’s thinking about where it hurts again—and he doesn’t have much to say about it. A lumbering seven-minute song called “Anxiety” all but stops the momentum of the record, hammering in a few platitudes about what it’s like to be anxious along with an unimaginative variation on the melody from “Yesterday.” “Anxiety, how do you always get the best of me,” he sings, “I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” While Isbell’s best lamentations often placed you alongside him—riding the same roads, nursing the same hangovers—this one asks you to do little more than feel sorry for him. It’s indicative of an album that feels sadly one-note, with some of Isbell’s least distinctive songwriting to date.
Despite Isbell’s general aimlessness, The Nashville Sound features several winning moments. “Hope the High Road,” with its heartfelt instructions for living a better life, is rousing enough to earn a place on future setlists, even if it’s a good deal less nuanced than his previous anthems: a song that’s all moral and no story, from an artist who made his name crafting exactly the opposite. “Cumberland Gap” is another highlight, but it gains its momentum entirely from the 400 Unit’s mighty performance, with Isbell’s pat narrative doing little to raise the stakes. The song’s best lyric, about a nondescript bar where “if you don’t sit facing the window you could be in any town,” feels all too symbolic of Isbell’s own lack of direction.
While the album’s most ambitious songs are often its least effective (like the needlessly epic “Anxiety” or the well-intentioned but flat political song “White Man’s World”), its best moments are when Isbell keeps it simple. “If We Were Vampires” is a stirring duet from Isbell and Amanda Shires, the 400 Unit’s fiddle player and Isbell’s wife. It’s a standard in the making, as earnest and luminescent as any ballad he’s composed, and the couple’s best collaborative performance to date. “Chaos and Clothes” is equally intimate, capturing a double-tracked solo performance in the vein of Elliott Smith’s late-‘90s work. It stands as one of the album’s only effective experiments: one that makes you hear Isbell’s voice differently and illustrates his growth as a breezy pop songwriter while his grittier work with Drive-By Truckers fades further in the rear view.
Opening number “Last of My Kind” tellingly picks up a few steps behind where Something More Than Free left off. While “To a Band That I Loved” peaked with a stirring realization of Isbell’s place in the world (“I thought everyone like me was dead”), “Last of My Kind” finds him on his own again, unsuccessfully trying to fit in with college students and city-dwellers. The resentment is mutual. They mock his lack of refinement, he critiques their lack of empathy; they laugh at his clothes, he snivels at their poor rhythm. All the while, Isbell laments that the world he knows is “an old and faded picture in my mind.” It’s a funny and moving song, as its lingering question (“Am I the last of my kind?”) grows more poignant with each chorus. As powerful as it is, you can’t help but wonder why one of our most capable songwriters is lingering in the doubt of his past, when he’s learned the answers better than any of us.