Jason Isbell has enjoyed an impressive string of hard-hitting successes since relocating to Nashville five years ago. Southeastern (2013) secured him a place as an influential singer-songwriter, with personally charged introspection that followed a stay in rehab and preceded his marriage to fellow musician Amanda Shires (literally by days and hours). His 2015 follow-up, Something More Than Free, earned him a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album. It’s no surprise that his first album with backing band the 400 Unit since 2011 is equally as strong and affirms the impact and contributions of Nashville upon him. On The Nashville Sound, Isbell and the 400 Unit continue his evolution as a singer-songwriter while confronting an uncertain future between their reception of the 2016 election and Isbell and Shires’ becoming parents.
Produced as his two previous albums were, by Dave Cobb, The Nashville Sound starts with “Last of My Kind”, a song about being out of place and conflicted about moving forward when going back is not an option. The song laments the coming of the future but perfectly balances the 400 Unit into the sound and style Cobb and Isbell produced on Southeastern and Something More Than Free. “Cumberland Gap” and “Tupelo” similarly consider lost opportunities, but on different aspects of life. Isbell has commented that “Cumberland Gap” is about the desperation of working-class families — specifically coal miners and their children, a group of Americans frequently cited on the 2016 election campaign trail. In both songs, escaping what brings you down is sought, but in “Tupelo” Isbell sings of a lost love that exists only in his memory, and that reality in the present could never match what he hopes to get back.
The opening tracks on The Nashville Sound perfectly set up the political themes that erupt on “White Man’s World”, where Isbell poses questions about racial and gender progress and is a deeply personal track for the musician. With Shires, he brings in his hopes for their daughter and the prospects for a woman in American society -– he hoped it was her world, “her momma knew better”. It’s the best track on an impressive album, primarily for its singer’s personal pleas and the confrontations in the post-2016 election it generates. Some may dismiss the critical positions in Isbell’s lyrics as the cries of a Nashville liberal, but it’s a hopeful set of pleas not for himself but his daughter, her future, and a world accepting of all in it. Drummer Chad Gamble’s percussion shines throughout the album, but it is a clear and dominant beat that drives the concerns and complaints Isbell makes on “White Man’s World”.
In its wake is “If We Were Vampires”, a song where Isbell recognizes the value and impact but sadly looks far (hopefully) ahead to a life alone when death or other circumstances prevent forever. “Anxiety” finishes a trilogy of songs on weariness, from uncertainty, realization, and worry. The song is also the longest and loudest rocker on an album with impeccable instrumentation, powerful guitar, and fiddling solos, and persistent collaboration between Isbell and the 400 Unit — demonstrated in the song by guitarist Sadler Vaden.
Much like the album opener, “Molotov” looks to the singer’s past. The title generously gives away the prospect of what the past represents and how the singer confronts it in the present and any potential for a repeat in the future. It easily replays Isbell’s addiction and rehab experiences, but additionally, serves to bring the 400 Unit back into a partnership after his two successful solo outings with producer Cobb. The following track demonstrates the musician and producer’s tackling of arrangement and instrumentation outside Isbell’s traditional style. “Chaos and Clothes” maintains the themes of the album, a lost love, and a memorialized past, but with double-tracked vocals, the song has a sweet edge despite loss and grieving.
The final two tracks look ahead positively. In “Hope the High Road,” Isbell embraces a style closer to the music of his early career and moves away from the concerns that emerged with the 2016 election and changes in his personal life and career. Isbell wants to be a force for change, not simply complain, and is at a place in his career where he can. This is a powerful shift for the close of The Nashville Sound, and the final track “Something to Love” is an ode to his daughter to find that for herself and not give up when times appear tough. For Isbell, that “Something to Love” is his daughter and in closing the album he fulfills the otherwise downtrodden elements of the early tracks on The Nashville Sound.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s first album together in five years is an enjoyable ride through his career and the life he has lived. It’s a deeply personal and often autobiographical album that cuts right on the things Isbell, the band, and his family, confront in the world. Titling the album The Nashville Sound reflect’s Isbell’s home in the music city, but never ties its stories to Nashville. In all, The Nashville Sound presents a full circle, Isbell returning to the band he started before moving to Nashville and earning success through a unique voice and divergent style.