Jason Isbell‘s two critically-acclaimed solo albums, 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free, opened up his audience to more than just music critics, alt-country fans, and the diehards who followed his career from his time in the Drive-By Truckers forward. He brought his longtime band, the 400 Unit, back into the studio for 2017’s muscular, angry The Nashville Sound, which emphasized the “rock” side for Isbell, who has deftly straddled the country-rock line for his entire career.
During the three-year gap between The Nashville Sound and the new Reunions, Isbell toured consistently, and wrote a song for the Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga A Star Is Born (“Maybe It’s Time”). He inadvertently started a meme when a man responded to Isbell’s tweet against assault rifles by asking how he is supposed to defend his children against 30-50 feral hogs wandering into his yard. Reunions has the difficult task of following up the strong Nashville Sound without repeating it.
Isbell is, of course, up to the challenge. He’s one of the most consistently excellent songwriters in the country and rock landscape, and he’s savvy enough to know he needs some musical curveballs this time around. But also veteran enough to not stray too far from what he does best. Interestingly, he chooses to open the album with its biggest track, the nearly seven-minute-long “What’ve I Done to Help”. It’s a song that rolls along on a quiet, chugging snare drum beat and complementary bassline, as well as lead guitar and organ flourishes. By keeping the feel a couple of notches below all-out, the song can hold its groove effectively for its lengthy running time. Isbell sings about whether the things he’s done to help himself and his family are enough. The last verse concludes, “The world’s on fire / And we’ll just climb higher / ’til we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and sound”, before heading into a lengthy outro where he repeats the chorus as the guitars solo underneath. That is typical of Isbell. The song features a lot of reflection but no easy answers.
Elsewhere on the album, Isbell tries some different things, with varying degrees of success. “Running With Our Eyes Closed” has a late-night, ’80s rock vibe, with guitar tones characteristic of that decade and some very conspicuous ’80s-style synths. It’s an interesting experiment, but it turns ’80s slickness is not the 400 Unit’s biggest strength.
“River”, on the other hand, is a piano and fiddle-heavy pop-country ballad that pulls a subtle switcheroo on the listener. The first verse finds Isbell philosophically ruminating on the concept of a river, how it used to be a cloud, and how it will dry up 1,000 years from now. Verse two starts similarly, but then it mentions how the river “Protect[s] me from my neighbor / All his jealousy and greed” and closes with “Take the body to the delta / Hide the weapon in the weeds.” At this point, the lyrics turn into a full-on Drive-By Truckers-style story of a bad man with only mild regrets, but the music stays doggedly upbeat and pleasant. Isbell’s vocal performance is consistently warm and sweetened by Amanda Shires’ harmonies. Isbell’s character never stops ruminating on the river, “Running ’til you’re nothing / Sounds a lot like being free”, but lines like “I’ve been a wolf among these sheep for all my life” pepper those ruminations. It’s a smart way to subvert what is a very pretty, easygoing song.
Other ballads like “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children” are much straightforward. “Dreamsicle” flashes back to childhood, eating the titular frozen treat on lazy summer nights. This one is cut with melancholy, both in the music and lyrics that involve divorce, unexpected moves, and the emotional damage from a lack of parental involvement. “Only Children” bears some resemblance to The Nashville Sound‘s excellent “If We Were Vampires”, initially sounding like a duet between Isbell and Shires, but Rival Sons singer Jay Buchanan is quietly in there as well, providing a third voice. This track is also a reminiscence, to slightly older adolescence and neophyte songwriting, backed by simple acoustic guitar and brushed percussion.
Lead single “Be Afraid” finds the band cranking it up and rocking out. Isbell admonishes the listener to, “Be afraid / Be very afraid / But do it anyway.” It’s one of the few outright positive songs on the album, and it’s inspiring to hear Isbell doing full-on encouragement. Which is a weird thing to say about a song that also features lines like, “We’ve been testing you / And you failed” and “If your words add up to nothing / Then you’re making a choice / To sing a cover when we need a battle cry”, but Isbell has interesting ways of making his point.
Isbell saves the emotional crux of Reunions for its final two songs, “It Gets Easier” and “Letting You Go”. The former is a rocker about sobriety and recovery, as Isbell reflects on his now-eight years since last taking a drink. “It gets easier / But it never gets easy” is a powerful, emotional statement, as is its follow up line, “I could say it’s all worth it / But you won’t believe me.” There are lots of songs about drinking and almost as many about quitting drinking, but there aren’t so many about staying sober years later, and it really resonates, even for a non-drinker like me.
“Letting You Go” is a song about Isbell’s young daughter that starts with her as a newborn but spins out into extrapolation about her future. It’s tender and heartfelt, with a chorus that says, “It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going / The hard part is letting you go.” The third verse begins with, “Now you’ve decided to / Be someone’s wife / And we’ll walk down the aisle / And I’ll give you away.” It conspicuously uses they/them pronouns for this prospective life partner, which is unsurprising considering that Isbell and Shires wrote the “first lesbian country love ballad” for Brandi Carlile to sing on Shires’ female country supergroup the Highwomen in 2019. Regardless of the pronouns, though, the heartfelt nature of the song makes it a great country tearjerker to finish out the album.
Overall, Reunions doesn’t quite achieve the heights of Southeastern or The Nashville Sound, but that’s only because Isbell has set the bar so damn high for himself. This is an excellent album in its own right, and I can’t imagine any Isbell fan being disappointed by it. The 400 Unit are in fine form this time out, with keyboardist Derry deBorja being used particularly well throughout the record. It’s already a candidate for one of 2020’s best.
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.