Music

'Reunions' Is Yet Another Winner From Jason Isbell

Photo: Alysse Gafkjen / Courtesy of Sacks & Co.

Jason Isbell both subverts and embraces country and rock tropes on Reunions, his new album with the 400 Unit.

Reunions
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Southeastern

15 May 2020

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.