Jason Isbell is often cited as being one of the best songwriters in the world. That sort of expectation can be a challenge to live up to, but for some reason Isbell continues to sally forth, upping the ante in all aspects of his craft. His new record The Nashville Sound, his first with the 400 Unit since 2011’s Here We Rest, is triumphant in its topical resonance, but draws influence from the timelessness of lyrical curiosity. Whether delivering heart-wrenching lines on the crumbling of the American Dream, or the crumbling of a relationship, each is given an equal shake, and that makes his songs unreasonably powerful.
“Last of My Kind” recalls the melodic cadence of the Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” though Isbell’s demons arrive in the form of big city isolation, the reminiscence of bygone years and cognizance of the galloping hooves of mortality. The sparse acoustic number is an interesting choice as album intro, given that The Nashville Sound is Isbell’s first non-solo record in a while. Its doubling as an indictment of metropolitan homelessness, and the futility of looking back, gives its starkness more gravity, as Isbell mournfully notes, “Daddy said the river would always lead me home/but the river can’t take me back in time/and Daddy’s dead and gone.”
The vestiges of Isbell’s solo ambiance on the opening track is pounded back on the “Keep On Rockin’ in the Free World” abandon of “Cumberland Gap,” the first song to showcase the 400 Unit’s riotous rock ‘n’ roll combustion. The tune paints a despondent tale of being caught in an alcoholic tailspin in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains, where the coal mines have dried up, and “there’s nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores.” It’s vivid commentary on the overlooked populace of boom towns in decline, and an animal of a rock song on par with the best of Ryan Adams’ more churning efforts.
Read our in-depth interview with Jason Isbell here.
The calming “Tupelo” shuffles in a honky-tonk weariness, with Isbell again intimating the sentiment of leaving home for greener pastures, or in this case, a girl in Tupelo. Here, the band’s tempered backbone emerges as crucial, tastefully divining subtle Americana accoutrement in the form of steady drums, wistful fiddle, and athletic bass lines to fill in the blanks of Isbell’s outlines.
In the most glaring leveling of anti-Trump poetry, Isbell offers the Crazy Horse jitter of “White Man’s World.” The blues-slathered track levels on white privilege, Native American genocide, the enduring scars of racism, and the baffling notions of patriotism in a contentious geopolitical landscape. It’s heavy stuff for Isbell, though he is an outspoken critic of Trump’s dizzyingly egotistical agendas. It’s another unsubtle picture being painted, as Isbell sings, “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes/wishing I’d never been one of the guys/who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke/Old times ain’t forgotten.” Through it all, Isbell finds a semblance of salvation, singing, “I still have faith but I don’t know why/maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
“Anxiety” wields a loud, raw anthem for anxiety-riddled citizenry, of which it appears Isbell is most assuredly a member, with passionate, literal lines pleading, “Anxiety/How do you always get the best of me?/I’m out here living in a fantasy/I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” It’s a narrative that will hit close to home for anyone living with anxiety, where even with universally accepted comforts, apprehension can rear its ugly maw. The song could be described as something of an epic, and is perhaps the best example of a no-frills lyrical message from Isbell. There is a call for resolve toward the song’s end, when Isbell’s strong vocals insist “I’m wide awake and I’m in pain,” while a squall of feedback writhes and the song’s Rush-like prog intro is fleshed out to include sweeping strings. Here, Isbell nails the drawing of the aural curtains as a kind of commiseration on the nature of debilitating mental disorders to spellbinding effect.
The late-album folk ditty “Chaos and Clothes” casts dancing shadows like a campfire at dusk, exhibiting Isbell’s most poetic manifestos on lost love, paranoia, and moving on from bad times. With just acoustic guitar and vocals, Isbell crafts vivid insights to an unnamed protagonist, singing, “You’re in a fight to the death my friend/a black metal t-shirt your shield/you’ve got the past on your breath my friend/let’s name all the monsters you’ve killed.”
Through matter-of-fact lyrical acuity, Isbell peels back layers of cultural abstraction to reveal the grit of the human experience on The Nashville Sound, and renders it much more inclusive than the title’s regional attribution might make it seem. The Nashville Sound is the sound of America, pulling up its sleeves, confronting its bullshit, raging at its flickering beacon. Isbell, maybe better than anyone else on the planet, can tap into the polarizing societal veins of the country’s manias, and transform them into anthems for—hopefully—much better days ahead.