I started writing this review like a normal album review, but I had to stop because it didn’t work. It didn’t work because I’m too invested; I’m too invested in everything this album is about, all the way from the tone of Isbell’s Duesenberg guitar on tracks like “24 Frames,” to the lyrics on “Something More Than Free,” which state, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” I know that guy that’s too tired; It’s my dad after playing guitar in club gigs for five nights in a row, sometimes until 1 a.m., then getting up the next morning to work his shift in a factory from 7-4. That’s the guy my mom is trying to get out of bed to go to church with us, like the good Baptist family we were. I was born and raised in the South, these are the people I know.
Isbell is no stranger to writing about the South. His last album, adored by critics and fans alike, was aptly titled Southeastern to reflect his current sound. What draws people to his work is the way he frames his subjects, a way that forgoes painting them in painfully-simplified Solo cup holding strokes for real, honest depictions of Southern life. It’s a way of writing that we don’t see enough of with country artists, a genre he dips in and out of. Think of it as less Charlie Daniels and more Willis Alan Ramsey or John Prine. It’s songs and stories about people, real people instead of stereotypes. People I’m friends with and hang out with, not the people you see on the news who live their lives fearing and hating others, just people. Some of us even use real drinking glasses instead of red cups.
When he sings, “Who were you if not the one I met, that July night before the town went wet” on “The Life You Chose,” I feel like I’m having a conversation with someone at the local restaurant on the square. I still live in a dry town, which means we can’t sell packaged liquor or beer. These are foreign (and outdated to most) concepts, but they are nonetheless still real. It’s a fact of life that we (begrudgingly) live with, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard it used as a story point in lyric form. It becomes a beautiful lyric by embracing an idea at the cost of possibly alienating some.
“Speed Trap Town” is a reflection on the struggle most everyone has faced — the question of whether to stay or go. It can be disheartening living here. I passed a truck flying rebel flags just this morning, and yesterday afternoon I listened to a story about how one of the wealthiest white individuals in our town won’t donate to a local community group because it doesn’t “benefit his people, just the blacks.” While the song doesn’t overtly deal with these issues, it encompasses the feelings of being trapped by your surroundings, a feeling that seems to permeate a lot of small towns in the South. The character in the song starts to question things after his father falls ill, thinking about what he’s actually sticking around for. When there’s nothing left for you to be tethered to, what does the town really offer? This track was also recorded and mixed a little different than the rest of the album, with a more spacious sound that’s meant to feel personal and up close — very much like what Springsteen did with Nebraska.
There’s some real fun on the album, as well. “Palmetto Rose” is a great bluesy workout for the band with raunchy guitar and a floating drum shuffle. The change to half-time in the chorus is completely unexpected but executed perfectly, while Isbell’s vocals have a slap-back delay effect that hits your left ear with just enough power to let you know it’s there. It’s a modern take on the ’50s rockabilly sound without coming across like a kitschy throwback.
Also worth mentioning, the fiddle work on the album is top notch. Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, is an incredible musician on her own and her playing is heard all over this record. The string swells are peppered in and out during softer parts of the songs, while her vocal harmonies often accompany Jason during a strong chorus or build-up. Case in point, check out her work on “Flagship,” possibly the most beautiful song on the album. It’s hard not to be touched by hearing a husband and wife earnestly sing such moving lyrics together.
In the end, I think the title track brings the whole album together. It’s the story of a man who’s thankful for what he has, while still looking for that one thing he really needs – someone to love and share his life with. I know that person as well, but that man is no longer with us and his story will have to wait until another time.
The music on the record sounds very clean and crisp, with tracks containing the full band sounding more produced than the others. The sonic difference between songs like “Children of Children” and “Flagship” are very apparent, but also speak to the different styles on the album. For me, the production and mixing on “Children of Children” is a real standout, having to keep the sprawling guitar balanced with the rest of the band as the story unfolds. The song takes a giant leap into the ether about midway through, signaled by a snare hit that sounds like the crack of a gun. It’s a chilling moment that gives the song real focus.
In contrast, “Flagship” lets the vocals shine while keeping everything else subdued. When the harmony begins during the chorus, you almost forget about the guitar playing in the back. That is, until Isbell plays the last chord before going to the next verse — it lingers for a bit to give you a dissonance impossible to ignore. Stunning.
The album is packaged in a very heavy gatefold jacket that sufficiently holds both 180-gram records. Each disc is housed in a heavy printed sleeve that shows pictures on one side and lyrics on the other. The album also came in a nice MOV-style bag with a few stickers on the front. All in all, everything feels well thought out and the production is top notch.
The release includes a nice download card showing a picture of Jason’s beautiful Telecaster with the code. It’s a small touch but much nicer than the standard white card. I purchased the indie store edition, which also contained a felt slipmat showing the Southeastern Records logo.
“Something More Than Free,” “Flagship” & “Children of Children.”
Something More Than Free is available on 180g vinyl at Southeastern Records.