tue 25/02/2020

CD: Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free | reviews, news & interviews

CD: Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

CD: Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free

How to follow up a masterpiece by Americana's finest songwriter

Jason Isbell paints portraits of Southern life on 'Something More Than Free'

When you’re a big Bruce Springsteen fan, as I am, there’s a game that you end up getting quite good at: one in which you have to separate the stories, about the hard-drinkin’, hard-livin’ workingman, from the multi-millionaire songwriter. Roots rocker Jason Isbell writes from a similar place as Springsteen – albeit on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line – but his work has never presented as much of a dichotomy. Sure, it’s not like he’s at Springsteen’s level of success, but with his understated, gravelly vocal delivery and gentler melodies, his portraits of Southern life are painted with far subtler brushstrokes.

As the follow-up to an album that was near-universally lauded for its openness and vulnerability – even when there was nothing autobiographical about it – Something More Than Free arrives as the work of a songwriter with nothing to prove, full of evocative details and melodic flourishes of joy. Isbell’s characters are grafters, whether reluctantly or otherwise: light-hearted, country-fried opener “If It Takes a Lifetime”, whose protagonist at least has himself convinced that he is “hellbent on growing up”, is full of the mischief that the title track’s narrator has had knocked out of him by years of hard work. But even he takes a quiet delight in shedding his clothes in the doorway at the end of a long day, while other characters find pleasure in whisky drinks and literature and that one huge, widescreen guitar solo.

Producer Dave Cobb, back on board following his work with Isbell on 2013’s Southeastern, keeps things pretty sparse this time around, with some rare exceptions. That solo, when it sprawls its way through the lyrical Gethsemane of “24 Frames”, is all the more powerful for being held back, while Amanda Shires’ fiddle soars for the heavens at the bridge of “Children of Children”, a heartfelt tribute to the songwriter’s mother, and the album gets one full-on Southern brawler in the form of “Palmetto Rose”. Sure, there are moments on the weaker tracks (“How to Forget” and “Hudson Commodore”, by my reckoning) where you’ll find yourself wishing for more  but if the result is “Speed Trap Town”, Isbell’s aching, poetic Nebraska moment, then the trade-off is worth it.

Overleaf: hear "24 Frames"

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