Something More Than Free presents Jason Isbell with a new challenge: nationwide expectations. His previous album, Southeastern, was a critically acclaimed work that landed on plenty of “Best of 2013” lists, including number five here at PopMatters. It had a raw, confessional quality to it that seemed to stem directly from Isbell’s struggle to stop drinking, even as the songs covered topics like the insatiable lust of a new relationship, fear of flying over water, tense nights in shitty motels, and the slow, lingering cancer-related death of a friend.
Isbell is smart enough not to try to top that. He says he’s a happier person than when he wrote and recorded Southeastern, and Something More Than Free is full of character sketches about people remaining positive no matter their circumstances. Even with his band the 400 Unit back on board for this album, musically, this is Isbell’s quietest, most laid-back work to date. Southeastern wasn’t the acoustic album its reputation would suggest. “Flying Over Water” was an anthemic rocker with a huge hook, and “Super 8” was a big fat slice of hard-hitting southern rock. Here even the biggest moments sound relaxed and unconcerned about the lack of distorted power chords.
Fittingly, opening song “If It Takes a Lifetime” finds Isbell telling the story of a man who hates his job but keeps on showing up, is newly single but dealing with it, and is “hell-bent on growin’ up” and resisting the bottle. This is all set to a jaunty, mid-tempo country groove buttressed by thick harmonies and an upbeat fiddle line from Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires. Second track “24 Frames” is an easygoing rocker with a jangly guitar chords and a post-chorus guitar lead from Sadler Vaden. Jimbo Hart’s melodic bass playing boosts the song in unexpected ways, adding a subtle but effective complement to Isbell’s vocal melody. It’s the bracing lyrics of the chorus itself that stick, though. “You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow / And everything you built / It’s all for show, goes up in flames / in 24 frames.”
Isbell’s lyrics are nearly always evocative, and that is still much in evidence here. He has a knack for detail, and that specificity combines with his melodic gifts to make his songs memorable. The gentle acoustic pop arrangement of “The Life You Chose” could pass for early ‘90s Barenaked Ladies in a different context. Lyrically, though, verses like, “I got lucky when I finished school / Lost three fingers to a faulty tool / Settled out of court I’m no one’s fool”, mark the song as uniquely Isbell. Similarly, the grooving “Palmetto Rose”, an ode to South Carolina, goes for the big, populist country statement with its chorus, “It’s the women I love and the law that I hate / But Lord let me die in the Iodine State.” But the sardonic couplet in the second verse, “Catch him coming out of a King Street store / Bullshit story about the Civil War,” is another prime candidate to be altered by Zac Brown or the next mainstream country act who wants to play an Isbell song but doesn’t want to offend the target audience.
If there’s one time Isbell doesn’t quite hit his target, it’s in the melancholy “Children of Children.” The song starts in standard territory, but Hart’s bass quickly starts adding melodic runs that would feel more appropriate in a jam band than here, and Shires’ fiddle accompaniment resembles the unnecessary string section additions to rock songs of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Then the back half of the nearly six-minute track is taken up by an interminable guitar solo and jam. Stretching things out turns out to not be the best use of Isbell or the 400 Unit’s abilities.
But that’s the one exception to what otherwise is a uniformly strong record. “Something More Than Free” discusses the value of having a job, even when it’s physically exhausting, and in this case Shires’ fiddle lifts up the vocal melody perfectly. The acoustic “Flagship” recalls the infatuation of Southeastern’s “Cover Me Up” with the location shifted to an aging hotel. And closer “To a Band That I Loved”, Isbell’s ode to the now-defunct Centro-Matic, manages to find a different take in the “Boy did I love this band” subgenre of songs by focusing on specific feelings at specific performances.
Jason Isbell’s voice is a distinctive instrument, by turns soulful and rough, but always marked by his Alabama accent. His songwriting is singularly focused on melody, occasionally veering into outright pop hooks. But only occasionally, which keeps the high-gloss moments few and far between. While Something More Than Free doesn’t quite have the thunderous impact of Southeastern, it would be fairly ridiculous to even have that expectation. What Something More Than Free does best is confirm that Isbell is a rare talent, one who doesn’t need a major life event to inspire him to make great music.