Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell (Photo by David McClister, PR)

Something More Than Free
Jason Isbell
Southeastern Records

Jason Isbell is in a better place these days. As he told Rolling Stone earlier this year, he’s happier than he was just a few years ago. The Alabama native, who quit drinking shortly before recording his award-winning 2013 album Southeastern, is thinking more clearly and his life is more focused with a recent marriage and a child on the way. On the new album Something More Than Free, that personal lucidity is coalescing in a creative way. While the contemplative Southeastern, a commercial triumph for the singer and songwriter, chronicled his journey towards sobriety, Isbell’s latest release celebrates a man who is ready to move on—and who knows he’ll remember his experiences this time around.

This sunnier outlook runs through Something More Than Free, a title that mirrors the 36-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist’s extraordinary mental state. On this new album, Isbell, who left Drive-By Truckers in 2007 after six years in that band, continues to write from the perspective of ordinary, everyday folk who work hard during the day and cope with life the rest of the time. But unlike Southeastern, the new songs are more celebratory and not as dark. This brighter disposition is immediately evident on the upbeat opener “If It Takes A Lifetime,” a song about one man’s determination to find contentment.

But as the album ventures further, Isbell appears to be singing about himself, reflecting on a bleaker past in “How To Forget.” In “24 Frames” he notes that life can change in the blink of an eye. The intimate “Children Of Children” seems to be an examination of Isbell’s younger years and you can’t help but think that he is referring to his impending fatherhood as he sings, “So late to have a baby on the way.” Not everything on Something More Than Free delves inward. “Speed Trap Town” tells the dour story of a son who is unable to forgive the sins of his now-deceased father.

There’s a strong dose of roots-rock running throughout Something More Than Free; in some ways Isbell is akin to a male Lucinda Williams. Although Isbell’s guitar work is fairly straightforward throughout the album, it’s his songwriting, especially his lyrics, which take center stage. Producer Dave Cobb, who helmed Southeastern, is back on board for Something More Than Free. The new album is more of a collaborative effort than the last one, as Isbell again relies heavily on his band, the 400 Unit. In fact, his wife, the songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, contributes fiddle, additional strings, and vocal harmonies.

Something More Than Free is the next logical step for Jason Isbell, following his masterpiece, Southeastern. It’s the work of a maturing artist who is exorcising his demons, determined to leave his troubled past in the dust with unbridled enthusiasm. That cathartic decision, begun on Southeastern and continued on Something More Than Free, clears the way forward for Isbell, one of the more intriguing and gifted artists on the Americana landscape today.

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