Isbell writes another solid Americana album with 'Something More Than Free'
When Jason Isbell released his excellent 2013 breakout album "Southeastern," it was something of a radical transformation for the Alabama-born musician. His first effort sober, it triumphantly documented his journey to get clean and boasted the best Americana songwriting of the year--see the gut-wrenching and gorgeous "Elephant," a contender for saddest song of the decade.
With an album as good as that, the pressure to write a worthy follow-up would seem overwhelming. Not so for Isbell. On his new full-length "Something More Than Free," any concerns that he couldn't deliver seem laughable. After all, the 36-year-old songwriter is currently enjoying the best time of his life: A soon-to-be-Dad married to violinist Amanda Shires (who appears throughout the record), Isbell channels his newfound contentment into a resilient effort that keeps the emotional baggage of his past work while somehow feeling lighter.
Reuniting with "Southeastern" producer Dave Cobb, the album has many touchstones of an Isbell record--it's got a twangy, rustic coat of Americana with bright acoustic guitars, Shires' gorgeous fiddle, calming, brushed percussion and a bluesy, riff-based number ("Palmetto Rose"). Like his previous four solo albums after a stint with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell deals in vivid portraits and well-formed characters. Take "Speed Trap Town," the album's most compelling song, which sets the scene of leaving town with the opening couplet, "She said, 'It's none of my business but it breaks my heart'/Dropped a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart."
This sort of framing is Isbell's bread and butter: Creating empathetic protagonists and writing heart-stopping stories about them. Another example of this comes in the album's midpoint, "Children of Children." It's a deeply autobiographical narrative of his mother having him when she was just 17: "All the years I took from her just by being born." It's a heartfelt moment, and when grandiose strings and a ripping guitar solo close out the track, it's tasteful instead of saccharine.
Few musicians can pull off tugging on our heartstrings as aggressively as Isbell. He's a humane writer, one that deeply cares about his craft (see the title track and the pastoral "Hudson Commodore"). So when "Something More Than Free" falters, like the way "Life You Chose" and "24 Frames" trade edge and intrigue for utter blandness, the moments of brilliance elsewhere make up for it.
3 stars (out of four)