“I don’t think on why I’m here or why it hurts/ I’m just lucky to have the work,” sings Jason Isbell on the title cut to Something More Than Free. He delivers that line like a man who’s been face to face with the abyss, and doesn’t for one minute think himself entitled to the good luck that’s come his way; he sings it like a man perpetually in recovery, an asshole and an addict pulled out of his own wreckage and waste by the steady hand of love, now looking for meaning in his craft, his vocation, his marriage—whatever will keep his second chance from being wasted. This is his fifth studio album, though it might as well be his second. It follows Southeastern, the bloodletting record that chronicled his collapse into addiction and bore witness to the love that saved him; the record, all frayed nerves and bleeding hearts, made him the reigning kind of Americana, and Something More Than Free feels like the wisest and most satisfying follow-up he could have engineered. It’s another record about finding light in darkness, redemption in love, meaning in work—it’s a record about addiction, but more than that it’s a series of love songs about the “somebody new” who coaxed him back to the land of the living. It’s less of an emotional outpouring than Southeastern, though—a bit more writerly, a bit more mannered. The songs have more shape to them, which makes the electric guitar jam at the end of “Children of Children” feel like a welcome bit of rabblerousing rather than the tedious bore that most electric guitar jams are. Isbell’s got some new tricks here: Check the ramshackle first single “24 Frames,” complete with chiming guitar hook and various shades of college rock. It’s tight but still messy, and its lyric offers a theology of devastation: “You thought God was an architect, now you know/ He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Note, too, the way he lends different weights to different songs: How “Flagship” seems almost like it could float away in its whispery grace, how “Palmetto Rose” struts and swaggers, how “If it Takes a Lifetime” opens the record with a spritely step and a bit of twang. But what I like best about Isbell is how he writes songs that extract universal truths from specific experiences: “How to Forget” sounds at first like a song about that awkward moment when your ex-flame meets your new lover, but really it’s a song about desperately wanting to break free from the past you can’t ever quite forget. Isbell is, by his own testimony, “hellbent on growing up—if it takes a lifetime.” Growing in wisdom and maturity—that’s the work he’s so lucky to have; this record is the fruit of his labor.
An album of deep fracture, most of its songs resembling crime scenes, The Blade opens with an optimism that sounds like it could bubble over and carry the rest of the record along with it: “On to Something Good” is sunny pop—classic country, assuming your history of country only stretches back to 1990 or so—and it might seem like a feint or a false promise were it not for the singer’s conviction: Ashley Monroe delivers it like a dare, a fragment of sunshine to pocket and carry with us through the record’s twists. And twist it does, literally so on the title track, wherein romance turns to betrayal and love into a two-edged sword: “You got it by the handle,” the singer sighs, standing amidst the wreckage, “I got it by the blade.” Monroe is such an ace singer and songwriter that a perfect metaphor like that one isn’t even the highlight of the album, and she often says the most when she doesn’t say much at all: “Bombshell” trembles and jitters at the thought of dropping an unpleasant truth; note that the song doesn’t actually reveal what said bombshell happens to be. My first assumption was infidelity; yours may be something different. It ultimately doesn’t matter: “It’ll never be a good time to drop a bombshell,” coos Monroe, and it’s not hard to hear it as a song of experience. Even the songs that sound totally put-together reveal tattered ends and razor edges: “Had anybody ever told you/ That they’d be lucky just to know you?” one song goes, but what sounds like a song about intimacy is actually a song about separation: It affirms the beauty of the Beloved while damning the singer’s hesitation. The subtlety of these songs provides context for Monroe’s dips into mythology and drama: “Dixie” is a song about leaving the South, but really it’s a song about hopping the next train to leave your past and your memories behind, to start anew. (She ain’t leaving ‘cause of the weather, the singer assures us.) “I Buried Your Love Alive” mirrors it in its resolve to put heartache and hurt six feet under, while “If the Devil Don’t Want Me” conjures country tropes and gothic folklore to convey the deepest despair of all: What if even my acts of self-destruction don’t make the longing go away? There’s humor here, too, as there must be on an album that leans so far in to embrace the hurt of love and the ache of desire: “Winning Streak” is about a loser, and it breezes by in feisty self-deprecation, while the closing “I’m Good at Leavin’” looks for a silver lining. I could go on and on about the songs, but let me also mount this theory: Maybe the real reason it’s called The Blade is because it walks with such poise along the razor’s edge of country authenticity and country pop: Monroe can do breezy country folk (check “Mayflowers”), outlaw swagger (“Dixie”), or backporch twang (“Winning Streak”) without sounding self-conscious and without sacrificing melody; she can turn toward soft rock and unabashed pop without pandering. (Listen to this and then go back to Platinum, and tell me Miranda couldn’t have swung for the charts without anything so dire as “Somethin’ Bad.”) Here’s how your experience with this brilliant album will go: The first time through, it’ll just be fun. Three or four listens in, the songs will start to cut you—deep. Eventually you’ll realize that country and Americana records don’t have to be self-serious or fetishize “rootsiness” to sound real, and the heavy stuff lands better when there’s a joke or two thrown in. And, that for right now, nobody does this stuff better than Ashley Monroe.
I am never more aware than when I am listening to Alan Jackson that the appeal of country music is in the telling of a good story; where so many of the music’s upstarts trip over themselves to land the punchline or hammer home the premise, Jackson’s always been canny enough to emphasize the inflection, the little details that make his stories sing. He’s never been much for adventure, not unless you count Like Red from a Rose, which he recorded in middle age. His charm has always been in his casual authority, deepening with each new album and every passing year. Angels and Alcohol is sort of a strange thing, then: A traditional, “purist” country album—assuming your definition of pure is calibrated to the late 1980s, anyway—that could ultimately only have been made by Jackson, whose well-worn mastery allows him to inhabit familiar roles and take up familiar scenarios while breathing new life into them. More than once he offers up new compositions that sound like they should have always been country songs, as on the gleeful breakup tale “Jim and Jack and Hank.” The singer’s woman leaves him in her fancy car, dog in her lap, taking with her the bottled water, all that “stuff for ladies,” and whatever’s left in the bank account; the singer might as well be flipping her the bird as he declares that he’s fine with his booze and his records, and then he calls his dad who enthuses that there will now be more time for fishing and golf. In lesser hands the song might have descended into misogyny, but the warmth in Jackson’s voice melts away much of the nastiness; it’s a song about taking comfort and moving on, not about dwelling on an ugly fracture with a mean woman. Note also how the singer takes his time on the opener, “You Can Always Come Home,” letting it begin with a gentle twang and holding it steady until the first verse breaks into a galloping chorus; the song is a father’s open invitation to a child leaving the nest. It’s a stray line—“even if you never find your way”—that grounds the song in reality and keeps it from becoming mush. “When God Paints” gets closer still to mush, but even here there’s some grit to it: “I can be his toughest critic,” admits the singer, regarding the good Lord’s handiwork. Jackson’s music is patient, taking its time to unfold, and it’s better because of it, but note that he can still tear through some righteous swing numbers, as he does on the easygoing “Flaws” and especially on the randy “You Never Know” (as in, “…when love’s coming through that door”), which just smokes, right down to the hot fiddle and piano solos. “Angels and Alcohol” (see also: “whisky and a good woman’s love”) is classic country dualism, Love lost to Drink, which might as well be The Devil, and Jackson delivers it with the gravitas it needs, solemnly intoning key lyrics in understated spoken word, letting the pedal steel shoulder much of the burden. Like the rest of the album, the song feels as old as country music itself, as fresh and as vital as today. That’s the raconteur’s gift, and the true pleasure of this warm and agreeable record.
The Kicking the Canon project ends today, but not before allowing me one final opportunity to talk about Bob Dylan: My take on the wonderfully weird, alluringly mysterious John Wesley Harding is available for your reading pleasure.
I should say that, when I heard this project was ending, I was midway through another Dylan retrospective, this one of Time Out of Mind. I may one day complete the thing, because why not, but until then, here’s my opening salvo: “Who says Bob Dylan left his Born Again days behind? Here is his Book of Psalms, his Lamentations– his resurrection from the dead.”
It is with much sadness that I report the demise of the Kicking the Canon project, which I’ve quite enjoyed both as a reader and as a proud contributor. Sam Mac and the gang have done excellent work and I’m sorry to see it come to an end so prematurely. The silver lining is that I do have one final review to share with you, this one of the seminal Roots joint Things Fall Apart. Get hip.