Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (photo by Alysse Gafkjen)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Four-time Grammy Award winner and former member of Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell is regarded in many circles as one of this country's finest songwriters. Critical praise, sold-out shows, and a batch of Americana and Grammy awards is a nice distinction, but success has become somewhat of an albatross for Isbell. Recording Reunions with his band, the 400 Unit, Isbell faced some demons that tested his confidence and knocked him out of his comfort zone. The Alabama-bred, alt-country musician's triumph over those personal battles is what makes Reunions such a powerful album.
Isbell's critical and commercial breakthrough was 2013's Southeastern, his second solo album, and fourth overall (the other two featured the 400 Unit). That winning streak continued with 2015’s solo album, Something More Than Free, and 2017’s The Nashville Sound, which reintroduced the 400 Unit after a six-year recording absence. But that weighed on Isbell. “Success is a very nice problem to have," he said in a press release, "but I think ‘how do I get through it and not lose what made me good in the first place?’ A lot of these songs and the overall concept of this album is how do I progress as an artist and a human being and still keep that same hunger that I had when I wasn’t quite so far along in either respect.”
Isbell was unsure that he could live up to those expectations. To complicate matters, once the recording sessions began, as he told the New York Times, there was some friction in the studio between Isbell and Amanda Shires, his wife of seven years who also plays fiddle and sings harmonies in the 400 Unit. (The couple has fortunately weathered their personal storm.)
The title of Reunions is a reference to reuniting with ghosts from the past: the people who aren’t around anymore and also the specters of a younger Isbell. The epic opener, “What’ve I Done To Help?" features sweeping strings, piercing slide guitar, and David Crosby on harmonies, It's a song of self-examination that explores one’s contributions to society. The equally grand “Overseas,” complete with a monstrous guitar solo, is about the divide that can rise between couples.
The loss of a dear friend is lamented in the somber “Only Children.” In “River,” with lyrics sure to rank among Isbell’s finest, he casts his worries on nature instead of another person. The poignant “St. Peter’s Autograph” addresses a couple’s relationship when jealousy makes its presence felt. It was written for Shires as she mourned the death of her close friend, the musician Neal Casal, who died by suicide last August.
Isbell's sobriety galvanizes the rocker “It Gets Easier" and he gets straight to the point: “It gets easier/but it never gets easy.” Children of divorced parents are the subjects of the lovely “Dreamsicle" and there's a Dire Straits feel to “Running With Our Eyes Closed."
“Be Afraid” is a fist-pumping anthem, driven by a relentless beat and soaring orchestration. In the moving "Letting You Go," Isbell ponders fatherhood: “Being your daddy comes natural/The roses just know how to grow/It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going/The hard part is letting you go.” (This father of a 21-year old daughter found it hard not to break down in tears. )
Dave Cobb produced Reunions with a goal set by Isbell to create an album that was more polished and grander then the musician's earlier albums, but without making significant changes. Besides Shires on fiddle and backing vocals, the 400 Unit includes keyboardist Derry Deborja, drummer Chad Gamble, bassist Jimbo Hart, and guitarist Sadler Vaden. Isbell also plays guitar and piano. In addition to Crosby’s guest appearance, Rival Sons' Jay Buchanan provides backing vocals.
Isbell may have found himself in an internal battle, but Reunions points to a man who has ridden many waves of self-doubt and self-destruction. Once again, he uses that awareness, knowledge, and skill to go beyond the torment — and he walks away with another understated masterpiece.