Not long after I’d seen them play a blistering, dynamic, and triumphant show in my hometown, Jason Isbell quit the Drive-By Truckers. Or was fired. No one — at least, not me — knows what happened beyond the fact that his relationship with his wife (Drive-By Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker) had gone south. I can remember feeling disappointed that I’d never again get a chance to see that same fantastic three-headed monster together on stage. I can also remember feeling keyed up for what I figured just might be the emergence of Jason Isbell as a solo artist, brimming with talent, blessed with a killer voice, climbing the walls of this recent personal tragedy. I guess, generally, I felt confident that both the Truckers and Isbell were strong enough to come back from this split.
The Truckers, as we know, returned last year with one of the best records of their career, the sprawling Brighter than Creation’s Dark. Isbell’s voice was missing, sure, but the unexpected surfacing of Shonna Tucker as his replacement on vocal and songwriting duties was more than enough to begin to fill the gap. Indeed, her Cormac McCarthy-inflected mystery narrative “I’m Sorry Huston” just might be the best song on the record.
But, what of Isbell? Well, Sirens of the Ditch, his solo debut released not long after his split from the Truckers, offered one glorious song (an exquisite soldier’s requiem called “Dress Blues”) surrounded by a bunch of middle shelf pop-rock. For someone who had appeared to be a major talent as a Trucker, he came off as an inescapably minor talent on his first full length. There wasn’t anything terrible about the record, mind you. It sounded good, even great at times, but it just didn’t have a lot of staying power.
I mean, this was the dude who had written “Outfit” and “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Decoration Day” and “The Day John Henry Died” and “Easy on Yourself” and… Oh, yeah, right. He wrote “Easy on Yourself.” The single worst song on any Drive-By Truckers record since about 2001, this inert arena rock boredom-fest was probably the biggest reason for the general disdain fans felt for A Blessing and a Curse, Isbell’s final album with the band. I guess, in retrospect, this was Isbell’s resignation? His signal to the band about the direction he was headed — away from those sirens, out of the ditch, and back into the middle of the road?
On this new self-titled record, Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit sound like they’re still finding their legs. They don’t really have a drummer, relying on session guys it seems, which is probably a big part of it. There are amazingly few moments of dynamism here, of musical flourish, of the kind of synergy you’d expect to hear from a full-time touring rock act. They kind of sound like they don’t know each other, or what each other is capable of, and just play a safe, stay-at-home style. Rock ‘n’ roll this really isn’t. More like just plain old Rock. And while Isbell sounds as fine as always — his voice is enormous, elegant, extraordinary — the batch of songs he showed up with is astonishingly flat. These songs are, simply, really easy to not listen to.
Again, this is the guy who wrote “Outfit”! One of the two or three best songs of the past 10 years! What’s going on here?
The opening track (“Seven Mile Island”) is a lazy riff on the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” by way of any take-your-pick-track from a Steve Earle record. It’s OK, but when it’s over you don’t feel much need to hear it again. The second song (“Sunstroke”) is much better, a tragic broken-heart number played with emotion and depth. But it’s all pretty dull from then on in. There’s the dreadfully overproduced hyper-rock of “Good”, the cliché-driven country weeper “Cigarettes and Wine” (“She smelled like cigarettes and wine / She kept me happy all the time / I know that’s not much of a line / But it’s the god’s own truth”), and the, well, pretty much the whole second side.
There are some bright spots, of course. Although “However Long” might be an uninspired bit of pseudo-politics, riding a sun’ll-come-out-tomorrow affectation, its “Coda” section is beautiful and satisfying. And the dangling fruit that is the title of the record’s final track, “The Last Song I Will Write” — it feels like a dare to reviewers who might suggest he should drop the pen before he strays too far from the brilliance of “Goddamn Lonely Love” — reveals the record’s real highlight. Folk-tinged, smart, melodic, and true, this is the stuff Isbell used to promise and deliver. Come back.