thu 22/10/2020

Album: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Reunions | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Reunions

Album: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit - Reunions

Southern rocker delivers another songwriting masterclass

Jason Isbell reconnects with past, and perhaps future, selves on Reunions

Like his friend the late John Prine, Jason Isbell is a master storyteller. His skill, like Prine’s, is to inhabit the characters he sings about so fully, and with such empathy, that it can be difficult to tell where the songwriter ends and the story begins.

Like his friend the late John Prine, Jason Isbell is a master storyteller. His skill, like Prine’s, is to inhabit the characters he sings about so fully, and with such empathy, that it can be difficult to tell where the songwriter ends and the story begins.

Take “Letting You Go”, the country ballad that closes seventh album Reunions. It’s a song packed with poignant detail that could be drawn from life: a father strapping his newborn baby daughter into a car seat, sleepless nights and first steps. But it ends with Isbell – father to a daughter, yes, but one who is four years old – giving his daughter away at her wedding, a lyric pitched so perfectly that it will reduce onlookers at every father-of-the-bride dance from here til 2050 to tears. At the album’s mid point, “River” seems just as melodically and lyrically moving – who hasn’t sat by flowing water and daydreamed about being swept away? – until the lyrics slowly crystallise into the perspective of a man who has murdered his next-door neighbour, washing his bleeding knuckles and hiding his weapon in the weeds.

After a run of three Americana Music Award-winning albums (two of them also Grammy winners) the challenge, says Isbell, was to “progress as an artist and a human being and still keep that same hunger than I had when I wasn’t quite so far along in either respect”. His approach – the “reunions” of the album’s title – was to reconnect with past, and perhaps future, selves, with frank songs which deal with childhood trauma, alcoholism, lost loved ones and parenthood alongside the more obviously fictional flights of fancy.

Lyrically, Isbell is at the top of his game. Early singles “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid” pair well together: the former, the album’s sprawling six-minute opener in which our narrator berates himself for his complicity in systems of oppression, aware of the hollowness of “thoughts and prayers”; the latter, a ballsy rocker about standing up and being counted, its “we don’t take requests, we won’t shut up and sing” refrain perhaps addressed to the portion of his fanbase unhappy with his outspoken position on social issues. “Dreamsicle”, sung from the perspective of a teenager desperate to escape a dysfunctional family situation, is pure poetry, backing vocals from Isbell’s wife and band member Amanda Shires as sweet as the titular ice cream treat; and “It Gets Easier” is a letter from present day sober Isbell to his younger self in the early days of recovery, by turns funny and poignant.

Longtime backing band The 400 Unit are on equally fine form, that six-minute opening cut in particular making space for the whole band to shine: pedal steel, a mesmerising bass line and the stadium-filling scream of the electric guitar. “Overseas” follows the southern rock trail blazed by Tom Petty with its huge, lovelorn chorus, towering solo and nods to the cover of “Refugee” the band performed on their most recent run of UK shows; while harmonies and hazy, dreamlike guitars haunt “Only Children”, a beautiful tribute to a deceased songwriter friend.

Below: hear "Dreamsicle" by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

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