Songs of insight, empathy and knowledge, his best work yet.
The Nashville Sound, a title that reminds us that while ‘Music City’ may be associated first and foremost with Country, there is a vibrant scene of alternative artists and Jason Isbell is at the forefront of the scene. This is Jason Isbell’s first credited record with The 400 Unit since Here We Rest in 2011 and, along with the sublime fiddle and vocals of Amanda Shires they provide the perfect backing for arguably his best set of songs to date.
Dave Cobb is again on production duties, and while there are similarities between The Nashville Sound, Southeastern and Something More Than Free, there is also more punch through most of the songs.
Album opener Last of my Kind is gentle in music but becomes more powerful in impact every time you listen with something of a latter day Alabama Pines about it. It tells the heart-rending story of the country boy, down and out in the city with the family farm now a parking lot, but somehow it seems to capture the entire essence of the album; individuals struggling with an increasingly complex and threatening society. This theme is continued with the album’s heaviest track Cumberland Gap, which references an old American folk tune but focuses on the modern despair of a coal miner’s son seeking refuge in drink.
Tupelo and Chaos and Clothes are two contrasting tracks about broken relationships. The escapist beauty of Tupelo contrasts with Chaos and Clothes which has that slightly under-produced feel that just moves you out of any comfort you may have started to feel with the songs if not their content. Unsettling and clever, very much like the album itself. Alongside these is the incendiary brilliance of Molotov, a song with as irresistible a hook as you could desire.
Isbell has proved before that his song-writing has the ability to go beyond his inner warning sign, to articulate the darker areas of life that many of us would shy away from. Southeastern’s Elephant is a prime example of this and now he has given us the unsettling If We Were Vampires. In harmony with wife Amanda Shires, the two lovers ponder the brief time allowed on Earth and the reality that one of them will eventually end up alone. This is a song of beauty and power and is Jason Isbell at his best.
Equally as affecting is Anxiety, where crashing guitars hit you as sure as worries hit the character in the song as he lies trying to sleep. This is a dark track about a darker issue. The line “I can’t enjoy a Goddam thing” pretty much summarises the condition.
However, it is the perspective of a parent that shines through the strongest as Isbell considers the world his daughter will grow up in. In White Man’s World we see the concerns about an unjust and divided society while Something to Love is both reflective, as Isbell reminisces about Sunday sing-alongs on the family porch and hopeful that his daughter will find that special thing to sustain her through hard times.
The Nashville Sound is Jason Isbell at his best, an essential collection of songs of insight, empathy and knowledge.
The Nashville Sound is released June 16th on Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers
All words Dave Jennings