With Sirens in the Ditch, Jason Isbell made a clean break from his days in Drive-By Truckers. As great as his collaborations with that band were, Sirens was a pretty good argument to be made that Isbell was always meant to be a solo artist, with complete control over the music he made. It had signs of his best Truckers songs, while also showing that his split with the band was inevitable as their musical directions grew further and further apart. With Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, he stretched his legs even more.
The album slinks in with the odd but effective combination of dirty slide guitar and bright piano on Seven-Mile Island. There are plenty of instruments, but they’re all turned right down, providing the perfect showcase for Isbell’s weary beyond its years voice. Followed up by Sunstroke, a tender, piano driven ballad, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit is generally on the quieter side of the Isbell spectrum. While I generally love his rockers more than his softies, these songs make a great paring and a great intro to this album.
But when the tempo and the volume get turned up for Good, it’s an immediate reminder of why I generally love his rockers more than his softies. There’s no hint of country or even really much of his southern, Alabama roots here. It’s just a solid rock song in the vein of Springsteen. And it’s a challenge Isbell’s song writing is more than up to.
But the country, southern roots are in full effect in Cigarettes and Wine. It’s the kind of bitter sweet story that I wanted from a song with title like Cigarettes and Wine. It’s a deliberate pace that could seem laboured or torturous in the hands of other people. But Isbell and his 400 Unit wring every single piece of emotion out of every single note.
Not that Isbell’s music has ever been lo-fi or cheap sounding, but there’s usually an organic, raw sound to it to some degree. Coda is an inessential instrumental that ads nothing of substance to this record, while also being way too over produced and slick sounding. While he’s undeniably a great guitarist, Coda is a reminder of just how important Isbell’s voice is to his music. A voice that gets to show off its emotional power perfectly in the melancholic The Blue. And all of that is ramped up even more in No Choice in the Matter, a blues, soul throwback, complete with sexy horns.
A surprising, kind of perplexing, but none the less great ending, is When My Baby’s Beside Me. This is classic arena rock, in the vein of Journey, and it’s something I haven’t really heard from Isbell before. A strange little oddity, that is also a great fist raising anthem, it’s like nothing else on the record, yet at the same time, the perfect way to close this record.
Another clear stepping stone from his days as a band member to the solo masterpiece that is Southeastern, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit is just another reason to be pumped about Isbell’s new album that just came out and I will review tomorrow. With such consistent increases in quality from album to album, how can the new one be anything but awesome?