Album Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - 'Reunions'

The esteemed leader of the 400 Unit puts one unsteady foot forward in a seamlessly crafted addition to his revered discography.

The Alabama-turned-Nashville native Jason Isbell has quickly become regarded of one of the finest songwriters of the 21st Century. Now heralded as one of the flagbearers for underground country music, Isbell first rose to prominence penning and fronting long-time favourites such as Decoration Day for southern rock outfit Drive-By Truckers. But the 41-year-old’s formidable inherent songwriting talent didn’t find its breakthrough into popular consciousness until the release of 2013’s Southeastern. Now considered a modern classic in the genre, Isbell channelled the restless dependency on alcohol he had developed during his time in the Truckers to put his renaissance of sobriety onto tape with legendary producer Dave Cobb, in an effort spawning alt-country staples like Cover Me Up and Elephant. Cobb went on to produce follow-ups Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound, the latter arguably the magnum opus of a songwriter reaching the peak of his perspective.

"Isbell has lost his way, and Reunions is the faded map by which he intends to put back together the pieces of the world he knew."

Isbell’s latest effort, Reunions, was recorded during a now-documented period of purgatory in his artistry and marriage to Highwoman, 400 Unit fiddle player and songwriter in her own right, Amanda Shires. And while the album’s sound is meticulously groomed with a fine comb in true Cobb style, the messages beneath are often wary, unnerved and unstable. Reunions is fantastic; of course it is, it’s a fucking Jason Isbell record. Its soaring rock and roll tendencies and impeccable lyrical turns are enviable by the most prestigious of contemporaries. But those looking for a natural successor to The Nashville Sound won’t find it here – the nostalgic, 70s soft rock textures of the likes of Molotov are gone, and replaced by more distant, less immediate works of craftmanship, a shift perfectly emulated by the cover artwork of each record. Isbell has lost his way, and Reunions is the faded map by which he intends to put back together the pieces of the world he knew.

Fourth single Dreamsicle’s title and assured folk-rock instrumental indicates toward the humble, rocking chair ponderings of the aforementioned Molotov, but Isbell’s early wail tears the covers from a cowering childhood of desolation. “New sneakers on a high school court/And you swore you’d be there” he recalls, as neglect turns to a desperation for new pastures, far from the vulnerabilities that come with family ties. The hook is a mere resort from reality, and the titular sweet beverage almost becomes a retreat from the restless torment of everyday life for Isbell’s younger self. Only Children follows a similar vein of innocence, poetically detailing a friendship with a fellow songwriter who ended up irreparably far from the borders of reality. Often on Reunions, Isbell feels like the fortunate sole survivor of perpetual trauma, clinging on via every lyric and melody.

"Often on Reunions, Isbell feels like the fortunate sole survivor of perpetual trauma, clinging on via every lyric and melody."

Likewise, on album standout St. Peter’s Autograph, Jason’s position on the marginal outside of life’s affliction finds him in the aforementioned purgatory, as a situation that should bring him closer to his wife leaves him helpless to her grief. The loss of Shires’ close friend Neal Casal plagues Isbell’s ability to plug every hole in her heart, and while his smooth cadence glides over the emotional turmoil, one can only imagine the painful insight it took to write “What do I do to let you know that I’m not haunted by his ghost?/Let him dance around our room, let him smell of your perfume”.

Yet somewhat, it is that emotional detachment that keeps Reunions from the greatness of The Nashville Sound elsewhere in the tracklist. Where St. Peter’s Autograph vocally glides over sorrow in a manner achieved by closure and the passage of time, the arrangements on the less autobiographical tracks here often lack the diverse pallet of previous releases. The piano-led River is a welcome break from the sure-footed, produced folk-rock of forerunning tracks, but its intimacy can’t help but provoke a thought that just Isbell and the piano would’ve done for this one, especially as its use of metaphor is less layered than the likes of Flagship off of Something More Than Free. Nonetheless, the ambitious production works more times than it doesn’t, as intro track What’ve I Done to Help stuns in its grandiose strings and guitar, not to mention the stickiest hook on an apocalyptic folk jam since Father John Misty’s Hangout at the Gallows.

Image credit: Alysse Gafkjen

The only relief in It Gets Easier is the more spacious instrumental and the return of Isbell’s witty turn of phrase, as the cynical update on sobriety boasts musings not quite fitting for an advert for Alcoholics Anonymous (“It gets easier but it never gets easy/I can say it’s all worth it but you won’t believe me”). Even the joys of parenthood are submerged in anxiety on closing track Letting You Go, as Isbell longs to follow his daughter back into her matrimonial home on her wedding day just to see “Every last minute of every last day”. It’s a sentiment markedly far from The Nashville Sound’s closer, in which jovial front porch country reminded the same daughter that life’s priority is always to find your passion.

At this point in Jason Isbell’s discography, Reunions is the album where he was due, as so many others have, to succumb to the pressure and create something raw, inconsistent and lost. Instead, it sets Isbell apart as a writer with the tenacity to pick up the scraps of the treasure map, locate the adrift conceptual fortunes and put together another stellar studio effort. Still in his undying prime, Jason Isbell is one or two great albums away from becoming this generation’s Springsteen.