Jason Isbell joined the Alabama band Drive-By Truckers in 2003, shortly after their critically acclaimed double-album, Southern Rock Opera, put them on a number of national radars. Isbell became a Trucker some seven years after the band began, sharing guitar and songwriting duties with the band’s two founders, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. At a time when the Truckers were sobering up their loose-cannon image, Isbell’s impact was immediately felt; his stark, emotionally rich ballads, sung in his penitent voice of velvety lonesome, were perfect foils for Hood’s and Cooley’s grittier songs of Southern lore. I’d even go so far to argue that Isbell was responsible for the best songs on two of the band’s best albums: “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” from Decoration Day (2003), and “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” from The Dirty South (2004).
In the few months leading up to the release of Isbell’s first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, it was announced that, after four years and three albums, he was no longer in the band, though no details were given regarding the reason behind his departure. Truth is, Sirens itself should tell the story: it’s a slickly produced record of conservative hard rock and country-tinged balladry whose polish floats a little too far from the Truckers’ grungier orbit. Although Isbell co-produced the album with Hood and a few of the Truckers lent their instruments, it’s a collection of songs he obviously had to make (and release) on his own: the ballads are of a more traditional pedigree (“Hurricanes and Hand Grenades”, for one, is an example of Isbell adhering to Songwriting 101 form) and the rock tunes are, unsurprisingly, scarce (only “Brand New Kind of Actress” and “Shotgun Wedding” crank out the Truckers-caliber oomph).
It seems that Isbell is using the solo-artist platform to retreat into a songwriter’s safe haven, if not aesthetic anonymity. Recorded at Muscle Shoals’ historic FAME Studios over the course of four years, Sirens sounds deceptively ordinary — it could be a Springsteen or John Hiatt record, professionally performed and plainly captured, yet executed with masterful effortlessness. There’s nothing here as incredible as “Danko/Manuel” or “Decoration Day” (the lack of blindsiding impact could be chalked up to the absence of Hood’s and Cooley’s songs, to which Isbell’s once offered stark contrast), but there are many instances of exquisite melancholy throughout. The closest Sirens gets to perfect is with its most striking ballad, “Dress Blues”, written for a Marine from Isbell’s hometown who lost his life in the current war in Iraq. Isbell evokes rich imagery of a family back home (“You ain’t comin’ back / They’re all dressin’ in black / Drinkin’ sweet tea in Styrofoam cups”) and keeps his voice tender through each affecting refrain: “You never planned on the bombs in the sand / Or sleepin’ in your dress blues.” “Chicago Promenade” is a mid-tempo highlight, its piano pulses and thick backbeat validating the song’s pop melody. A resonator guitar adds texture to the beautiful “In a Razor Town” and banjo sits shotgun on “The Magician”, two songs that shelter Isbell’s artistry in otherwise unassuming constructs.
Sirens is so modest and plainspoken that it’s somewhat ironic that the major theme running through its songs is masculinity. “Try” plots down-home wisdom to the plights of male/female relationships (“You can’t make a woman sleep alone / And you can’t give her lovin’ on the phone / You can’t make her stay her ass at home / But you try, don’t you?”), “Grown” pays homage to first love and early manhood, and “The Devil Is My Running Mate”, a foreboding acoustic song that closes the album, injects a shameful conscience into a conflicted male political figure. One would expect more bravado or pomp from both a masculinity motif and a big solo debut, but Isbell turns those sorts of expectations on their ears without so much as making a spectacle. Perhaps, then, this is how Isbell reintroduces himself: as a songwriter with so many inconspicuous ways to say so much.