You know you’ve made it in the music business when you release a teaser video for your new album and entire articles are devoted to dissecting it like a Hollywood blockbuster. That’s where Jason Isbell found himself three months ago when he released a thirty second video tease of Nashville Sound. It invited more questions than it answered. Was adding longtime band The 400 Unit back into his name indicative of a more band-focused album? Was the heavy guitar riff a move toward a more rock sound? Now all of those questions and more will be answered when Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit finally release Nashville Sound on June 16.
Nashville Sound is definitely a band album. While Isbell’s previous two releases featuring only his name, Southeastern and Something More Than Free, were more acoustic, quieter, and more introspective, Nashville Sound is closer to what it feels like to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in concert. Isbell may be an Americana icon, but he’s regularly referred to The 400 Unit as “my rock and roll band” and there’s rock and roll to spare on the album.
Fans already got a taste of the guitar-heavy direction with two of the album’s pre-release singles, “Hope the High Road” and “Cumberland Gap.” Isbell and guitarist Sadler Vaden trade off power chords like they’re channeling Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. “Cumberland Gap” especially has a strong Heartbreakers vibe to it, not surprising considering Isbell’s unapologetic adoration for Petty.
But it’s not just Vaden who gets his chance to shine. The heavy riff that inspired so much speculation in the trailer is from album standout track “Anxiety.” While Isbell and Vaden trade off a strummed acoustic guitar and those hard rock electric licks, perfectly matching the shifting moods of Isbell’s lyrics, it’s bassist Jimbo Hart who shines here. The bassline holds it all together and provides a thunderous Geezer Butler-infused undertone to the entire song.
The topics on Nashville Sound are also a bit of a change for Isbell. It’s no accident that “Hope the High Road”, with its lyric “I heard enough of the white man’s blues, I’ve sang enough about myself”, was the lead single. It could serve as a mission statement for the rest of the project. After exploring the depths of his journey through darkness on Southeastern and of taking his first tentative steps into the light on Something More Than Free, Nashville Sound is about Jason Isbell joining the world in full. There’s much less introspection and much more observation.
Unsurprisingly, that observational eye eventually took Isbell into the realm of political and social issues. But unlike other, more direct attacks on political figures by musicians in recent months, Isbell takes on politics like most of the rest of us do, trying to make sense of the mess we’re all in, how we got there, and what it all means for his family. “Hope the High Road” is a much needed appeal to civility in a time when families fracture based on election preferences. More cutting is “White Man’s World”, but even here Isbell doesn’t preach or pontificate. In fact, he goes out of his way to acknowledge his own part of that world, singing “I wish I’d never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white man’s jokes. Old times ain’t forgotten.”
Of course, like Isbell’s wife and 400 Unit band member Amanda Shires did with her outstanding 2016 release My Piece of Land, Isbell spends quite a bit of time on the meaning of family. The album’s quietest song, “If We Were Vampires” is a testament to just how far Isbell has come from the man who just four years ago recorded the raw and tentative “Traveling Alone”. Here, Isbell laments the fact that “Maybe we’ll get forty years together, but one day I’ll be gone. Or one day you’ll be gone.” It’s a touching look to the far future from an artist who, just a few years ago, seemed unlikely to live long enough to worry about it.
Another standout family song is “Molotov.” It’s Isbell’s anti- “My Generation.” While The Who inspired young rockers everywhere to proclaim they “hope I die before I get old”, Isbell reflects on those days, and how he “broke a promise to myself to ride the throttle ’til the wheels came off.” When you’ve “made a couple to a brown-eyed girl, who rode with me through the mean old world”, there’s a lot of reason to keep living those forty or so years together.
At this point, it should surprise no one that Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit has likely released the Americana album of the year, and possibly the most important album of 2017 in any genre. For all of Jason Isbell’s many talents, the most impressive one may be consistency. He continues to find new light to shine on familiar subjects and he continues to cement his legacy as this generation’s finest lyricist.
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