First Impressions: Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

somethingmore“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.

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