Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is The Nashville Sound, the new album from Jason Isbell.
When he emerged from the Drive By Truckers in 2007, you’d never have pegged Jason Isbell as a guy who would go on to headline theaters, be profiled by everyone from NPR to The New York Times, and who would have multiple Grammys. But here we are, in 2017, and multi-Grammy Award-winning singer songwriter Jason Isbell is releasing one of this summer’s most hotly anticipated albums, The Nashville Sound. Unlike his contemporaries Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, Isbell gets the benefit of not trying to live up to, or refute, the designation that gets put on the three of them, that they’re going to “save” country music. He’s been dealing with the “Country Music for People Who Hate Country” tag since 2002 when he joined the Truckers, so he’s free to make his music, and let the pontificating about what his records mean, man slide off. Instead, he gets to make albums like The Nashville Sound.
The pre-release buzz on Nashville, Isbell’s first album with the 400 Unit since 2011’s Here We Rest, has been that it’s a “rock” album, which is true in the sense that there are more guitars here than on Something More Than Free, and those guitars rip and screech and shred more than on any Isbell album ever, probably. But that designation makes it seem like this wouldn’t be the wordy, self-reflective stare into his own subconscious that his last two albums were. Even though Isbell yelps “I sang enough about myself” on “Hope the High Road”—this album’s strongest song—The Nashville Sound affirms that there aren’t three songwriters alive right now better at self-examination than Isbell.
The album opens with the lilting “Last of My Kind,” a song fundamentally about not fitting in anywhere you go, and transitions to one of the most towering rock songs on the album, “Cumberland Gap.” The idea of not being able to escape a hometown is an old trope in country music, but “Cumberland Gap” reimagines a hometown as something that can “swallow you whole,” leaving would mean abandoning your mom, and where the only option is to obliterate yourself with alcohol and the “harder stuff.” “Molotov” is the other end of that hometown-fed obliteration; coming on like a Steve Earle song from 1987, it finds Isbell apologizing to the younger version of himself for not self-destructing like he thought he would.
“There aren’t three songwriters alive right now better at self-examination than Isbell.”
Isbell can sometimes be an overly sentimental songwriter, but given the triumph over his problems he’s had he can be allowed some dips into being corny. So while “White Man’s World” is far and away the most awkward song here—it’s very nearly a Macklemore song—you also have to applaud Isbell for being the only country artist in recent memory to directly acknowledge white privilege, and worry about the buried people of color who have allowed white people to live the life they have. Though I imagine most Isbell fans won’t identify as someone who is glad about the subjugation of Native Americans, it’s still at least moderately radical to have a guy from inside the Nashville firmament say the things he says here; most country stars have been pretty damn quiet in the age of Trump with regards to how they feel about the political climate in America.
The Nashville Sound’s peaks when it gets quiet and downright touching. “Tupelo,” a song about heading out after a girl to an unknown city is a highlight, and so is “Chaos and Clothes,” a song that renders ex-lovers into the chaos and clothes they leave behind. Isbell remembers lovers based on their black T-shirt, and tries hard to hate her new boyfriend, but can’t hate someone he doesn’t know.
A lot of the coverage of Isbell these last five years has centered around his overcoming of alcoholism and getting his life on something resembling a track. He’s been an open book about it in interviews, and especially on his records; he’s a new man now. One of the most alluring parts of The Nashville Sound is how he’s ready to move on to whatever this new phase of his life is, without dwelling on the past. “I’ve had enough of the white man’s blues,” Isbell sings on “Hope the High Road.” “So if you’re looking for some bad news, you can find it somewhere else.” Isbell has found his way back to just being a regular guy making great music, without the pressure and emotional turmoil that fueled him.