Two years ago, Jason Isbell was several albums into his solo career. But I still thought of him mainly as the dude who used to be in Drive-By Truckers and I wished was still in Drive-By Truckers. Then he released Southeastern, an album that received amazing praise across the board. And even better, it lived up to that praise. Southeastern was Isbell declaring himself a legitimate solo artist who had more than broken the chains connecting him to his old band. So while I was interested in Southeastern before it came out, I was in no way expecting the watershed record that it ended up being. This time around, in the lead up to its follow up, I have been officially stoked, pumped, excited and hanging out for Something More Than Free for nigh on six months.
With the fiddle of Amanda Shires almost as prominent as Isbell’s voice and guitar, It Takes a Lifetime is exactly the kind of traditional country with a modern feel that I want from Isbell. Leading in to the singer, songwriter stuff of 24 Frames, and Something More Than Free is quickly living up to my half a year of anticipation. Isbell’s older than his years, world weary voice has always been one of his greatest assets. And delivering lines like, “This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing, and this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing”, is exactly what it was made for.
It’s the voice of Isbell that shines again on Flagship. A song all about striving for the best and making sure a relationship never gets stale and old still has a beautifully tragic ring to it with Isbell on the mic. As amazing a song writer and vocalist as he has proven to be, that sometimes overshadows what a proficient lead guitarist Isbell is as well. And while there’s a small hint of his noodling prowess on the tender How to Forget, it only made me increasingly notice how much I would love more Isbell rockers so there was an excuse for more Isbell guitar solos.
After a string of introspection, the more upbeat sound of The Life You Choose is a great mid-album reenergiser. While I love Isbell at his most reflective, something with a little more pep in its step is exactly what Something More Than Free needed at this point. It’s the kind of thing I could hear Isbell’s friend Ryan Adams making his own. And I mean that as compliment to both dudes. It’s also another showcase for Shires’ violin and how integral it has become to Isbell’s music. Present and strong, but never overbearing or outstaying its welcome. And that’s even more true on the title track.
The swampy darkness of Palmetto Rose is a blues based tail that could only be told with a southern drawl. It’s also the only time when Isbell really lets loose vocally, and he totally kills it.
I may have put unfair expectations on Something More Than Free. Because while I really, really liked it, and while I know I will be listening to it pretty regularly for a little while, I think I went in wanting too much. Southeastern was such a game changer, it made me spend the last two years listening to more old Drive-By Truckers and old Isbell than I ever had before. I knew and liked them before Southeastern, but that record and the Trucker’s English Oceans began an obsession with all things Truckers related that is nearing two years of listening to them in some way almost every single day.
It would be pretty much impossible for anything to hit me as hard as Isbell’s last effort. And my anticipation only made that less likely. But while I can’t call Something More Than Free a mind blower right now, I do thinks it’s nothing short of great. I also have no doubt that it will grow on me. Isbell is the kind of songwriter whose stories and lyrics only get better the more familiar I become with them.