Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Photo: Danny Clinch / The Oriel Co

Jason Isbell’s ‘Weathervanes’ Sports Superb Songwriting and Musical Surprises

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit turn in typically strong performances throughout Weathervanes, featuring Isbell’s finest vocal performances across a full album.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Southeastern / Thirty Tigers
9 June 2023

Jason Isbell‘s eighth studio album kicks off with a surprisingly repetitive song. “Death Wish” begins with the chorus, where Isbell sings about loving a woman who may be suicidal and how to deal with it. It’s a good chorus, and lines like, “Something in her eyes like flipping off a light switch” and “I don’t wanna fight with you baby, but I won’t leave you alone” are excellent summations of a difficult situation. Musically, it’s straight down the middle for Isbell, a rocker that uses acoustic and electric guitars and an arrangement that gets bigger as it goes. That arrangement doesn’t quite bring enough to the table to overcome how often Isbell repeats that lengthy chorus, though, making the track a rare misfire despite the strong lyrical sentiment.

Fortunately, the rest of Weathervanes fares much better. Isbell and his longtime band, the 400 Unit, turn in typically strong performances throughout the record. Isbell balances his songwriting with tracks in his country-rock wheelhouse and a few welcome excursions outside his comfort zone. His voice is also superb; this record may feature his finest vocal performances across a full album.

Isbell turns in a pair of mostly positive love songs relatively early on Weathervanes. “Strawberry Woman” is a gentle country ballad with prominent acoustic guitars and barely there brushed percussion. Lyrically, it’s a collection of vignettes about the titular strawberry woman. There are hints of things going wrong, “Some time apart could do us good” and “But it hurts to move, and it hurts to learn” stick out. Mostly, though, the track is comforting and nice, with some welcome harmonica from Mickey Raphael.

“Middle of the Morning” opens with a bright, clean guitar reminiscent of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”. The lyrics could be about the awkwardness of falling in love or dealing with COVID isolation. “I know you’re scared of me / So I never get too close / I just sit here on the tailgate like a farmhand’s ghost.” Warm piano chords from Jerry de Borja and a relaxed guitar solo from Isbell add to the easygoing feeling.

This is Jason Isbell, so Weathervanes is never too far from a story song about a hard-luck man just trying to make it through the world. “King of Oklahoma” is a mid-tempo rocker backed with some prominent fiddle accents from Amanda Shires. Shires is, at best, a part-time member of the 400 Unit, but she always fills out the sound nicely when she shows up.

Isbell tells the story from the perspective of a man with a chronic back injury scheming to steal copper from a construction site. He’s addicted to pain pills and spends his days mostly numb to the world and trying to scrape by. In this case, the chorus reveals the source of the narrator’s pain: a woman who left him. “She used to make me feel like the King of Oklahoma / But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore.”

“Volunteer” covers different, but just as tricky, ground. It’s a little more country, with a soaring chorus as Isbell sings, “Take me away from here!” In this story, the narrator’s parents died when he was young, leaving him in foster homes until he ran away for good. Now he struggles to get along with a woman he’s reluctant to call his girlfriend and tries to avoid getting kicked out of the KOA campground where they’re staying. Shires provides backing vocals and fiddle, and her voice adds a subtle but significant element to the song.

“White Beretta” sounds, at first, like a pleasant but melancholy song, with Isbell and guitarist Sadler Vaden harmonizing beautifully. The simple musical arrangement focuses on the vocals and lyrics, but Isbell isn’t ready to come out and be specific on this one. However, after a couple of listens to the somewhat oblique lyrics, the song reveals more of itself. It’s Isbell’s examination of his guilt from having to go through an abortion with his girlfriend when he was in his late teens. The feeling of melancholy hits a lot harder with that additional context.

Isbell, the parent of a daughter, saves his heaviest emotional beats for songs that tackle variations on that experience. This showed up on Reunions a little as well, as that record’s closing track, “Letting You Go”, extrapolated a lifetime of moments with his girl as she grew up. “Save the World” gets more personal than that. A 1980s-style reverbed guitar and organ noodles give the song a tense feeling right from the intro. Isbell sings about forgetting his wallet and having to argue his way onto his flight, and it’s not clear yet where this is going. The second verse finds Isbell shopping at the grocery store with his daughter and internally panicking when he mistakes the sound of a balloon popping for gunshots. Isbell, a proponent of gun control for years, is a savvy enough songwriter to keep that explicit sentiment out of his songs. He sticks to the feelings gun violence engenders in him in terms of trying to protect his child.

“Cast Iron Skillet” may be Weathervane‘s saddest track. Fiddle and accordion give the acoustic song a slightly different feel than many of Isbell’s ballads. It lopes easily along, as the opening verse mentions mourning a childhood friend killed in prison. The second verse begins with “Jamie found a boyfriend / With smiling eyes and dark skin / And her daddy never spoke another word to her again.” Isbell brings casual racism down to a personal level and has a real impact. “She found love, and it was simple as a weathervane / But her own family tried to kill it.”

The hardest rocker is the chugging “When We Were Close”, telling of a former bandmate of a rock star who died. Isbell’s character was left behind when the bandmate went on to bigger and better things. He has complicated feelings about this, as the chorus declares, “I was the worst of the two of us” and concludes, “You were bound for glory and grown to die / But why wasn’t I? Why wasn’t I?” and it’s unclear if he’s talking about not being a star or not being dead. To keep on track with the theme, the second verse mentions the dead friend having a young daughter and hoping she remembers how much he loved her.

Isbell saves his most extensive explorations for Weathervanes‘ final two songs. “This Ain’t It” opens as a lively country-rocker where an estranged father attends his daughter’s wedding and attempts to convince her that it’s a mistake, that “This ain’t it, baby.” Isbell belts this one out, howling his way through the chorus. Shires is also here for backing vocals, adding a delicious second layer. Surprisingly, deBorja’s organ chords come to prominence at the halfway point while the rest of the group lays back. Here, Isbell and Vaden trade light and jammy guitar licks back and forth, Allman Brothers-style, for most of the rest. For such a tight, song-focused group, it’s refreshing to hear the 400 Unit open up musically.

Closer “Miles” pulls off a similar mid-song switch. It starts as a downtempo, slightly bluesy rock track. Lyrically, it’s one final instance of Isbell working through his relationship with his daughter as she grows up. “She’ll be driving in the fall / We’ll sit up waiting on the call / As she leaves, I’ll tell her don’t get hurt and don’t get pregnant / But she won’t acknowledge me at all.” Here, a Beatles-esque singsongy guitar solo leads into a complete mood shift. Suddenly the 400 Unit is in Led Zeppelin territory, as Vaden starts a riff on a 12-string acoustic guitar and drummer Chad Gamble pounds his way into Isbell’s return.

Weathervanes may open with a song that’s just okay, but it’s another triumph for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. “Save the World” and “Cast Iron Skillet” are excellently written and pack an emotional gut punch. The 400 Unit may not be an ensemble that screams “monster musicians”, but they are up for anything Isbell throws at them, however delicate or heavy. They demonstrate this ability on the final two songs, handling a surprise tour through the 1960s and 1970s classic rock with aplomb. Even by Isbell’s lofty standards, Weathervanes is a big swing, and the band hits a home run.

RATING 8 / 10