Words About Music
Country music is the most recent genre I’ve grown to tolerate, enjoy, and love as a music fan. Perhaps it was because I’d never grown up with country music and the fact that it was my perspective that there was no country music currently coming out worth being excited over, but for one reason or another it took me quite a while to get into it. It’s been the work of artists like Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, and Sturgill Simpson that has more-or-less changed my mind on the genre, its sounds, and its limitations. Where a Southern accent used to immediately turn me off, I am now more open-minded and interested in country music.
An artist I discovered around that same time is former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, of whom I became conscious in 2015 when he released his acclaimed solo album “Something More Than Free.” Admittedly, I don’t remember much about it, but I knew that his name would be something I look out for in the future. Two years later, and Isbell is back with “The Nashville Sound,” his first album since 2011 to be branded with his band, The 400 Unit.
The album’s brief 40 minutes kicks off with “Last of My Kind,” a song in which Isbell laments his rural Alabama roots and entertains the side of himself that yearns for those simpler days, before he became a career musician who needs to hew toward cities more often than not. He waxes lyrical about folks who fear social progress, and tries to avoid the urges within himself that feel the same way. This is a subtle, beautiful way of opening the record up, as it reconciles his country-folk upbringing and attempts to carve out a space in urban life for those values and beliefs. He appreciates the beauty and the callousness in the world, and the way he sings about it is plaintive and homely, not quite as over-the-top as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton can occasionally be. Jason Isbell is a down-to-earth good-old-boy. He’s like if Hank Hill picked up a guitar and started writing bluegrass.
The next song, “Cumberland Gap” has more of a rock-and-roll-inspired groove to it. It takes on the economic distress of working class communities in the United States and how it manifests in a myriad of substance-abuse problems. It’s a frustrated, sad song that tackles a dark reality, and while it focuses more on the coal-mining towns of the south-by-southeast United States, I think it applies to virtually any low-income community in the nation. While the song itself does ring a bit like a forgettable dad-rock song, I think the lyrics save it from being a complete nightmare, as well as some of the fiery guitar-and-bass work throughout.
Isbell paints a character portrait in “Tupelo,” which is practically a short story about a guy trying to leave his problems behind in order to seek out a hopeful future elsewhere. It’s got a pretty good narrative to it, and it’s yet another faithful country tune that will please the fans. The songwriting here actually kind of reminds me of John Darnielle from The Mountain Goats if he adopted a southern accent and tried his hand at a country music album. I wouldn’t call this the most outstanding or special song in the world, but it certainly ain’t bad.
The album’s most socially poignant (and perhaps controversial) song comes in the form of “White Man’s World,” a provocative country song which tackles the issue of race relations and male privilege, something that you never really hear from white country music artists. It’s an unflinching, but not overly preachy take on the issue, as Isbell laments the institutional sexism his wife has faced and his daughter will face, the United States’ history of genocide and slavery, and an ashamed bit of introspection on the countless times Isbell heard (and probably made) racist jokes and did nothing to really put a stop to it. Sometimes, the song gets a bit cheesy lyrically, like on the line “I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation/I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation,” but ultimately I think it’s a successful and tasteful track which is just accessible enough to perhaps open some minds and not provocative enough to turn anyone away who’s not an outright racist. It’s basically Liberal Identity Politics: The Song, and while I find liberal identity politics to be rudimentary, it can serve as a good foundational tool to understanding the world and history.
One of the album’s definite highlights is “If We Were Vampires,” which is definitely one of the best love songs of the year, from its tight melody to its creative lyrics about understanding that either Isbell will die first or his wife (and 400 Unit bandmate) Amanda Shires will, and either way they need to be able to cope with that fact and enjoy the limited time they have together. It’s a beautiful, goosebumps-inducing song that works as a brilliant midpoint for the record. It’s sweet, toned down, and moody, with its somber ambient embellishments which crop up toward the end. I know Isbell is pretty proud of this one, and I would be, too, if I’d written it.
Jason gets proggy with it on the 7-minute “Anxiety,” which opens up with some straight-up Black Sabbath-inspired guitars and heavy drums. It melts into a country-rock barn-burner, albeit a repetitive one. I don’t think this track necessarily justifies its length, but it does give us a musical change of pace for Isbell and the 400 Unit, especially with its explosive outro. This track does have me wishing for more, but once again, at least we are getting some interesting lyrical territory, with Isbell singing about how anxiety is a widespread phenomenon that manifests in numerous different ways and how we need to be more open about these sorts of disorders in order to help more people get the help they need.
“Molotov” is another run-of-the-mill bit of historical introspection with some more typical imagery that’s soaked in regret and remembrance. It feels like filler compared to some of the album’s more essential cuts, but, like I’ve said, it’s not a bad song. In fact, there isn’t really a bad song on this album, just some that aren’t as good as the best songs.
I do really enjoy “Chaos and Clothes,” a track which was written as a tribute to Ryan Adams, one of Isbell’s good friends and a prolific songwriter in his own right. This song was also sort of an a-ha moment for me, as Isbell’s songwriting reminds me very much of Ryan Adams’, although I didn’t make that connection until I looked into this song’s details and found it that not only is it meant to console Ryan Adams following his divorce from Mandy Moore, but it also contains numerous references to some of his songs. It’s a supportive, friendly track, the execution of which I particularly enjoy. I also think it’s hilarious that Isbell even goes so far as to insult Mandy Moore’s current partner, the vocalist of folk-rock band Dawes.
Lead single “Hope the High Road” comes up next, nicely tying together a lot of the album’s themes. It’s a song that is about anxiety, love, and disappointment, specifically with the country’s current political administration. It’s sort of a flaccid, hollow song though, and it’s over before it can really settle into itself. I do, however, love the line “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues/I’ve sang enough about myself.” It’s an okay song, but not one of the album’s best, although I do understand why it was the lead single.
The record ends on a high note with “Something to Love,” a closing message to his young daughter, letting her know that he wants her to find a passion in life and follow that passion, whatever it takes. It contrasts the strict upbringing Isbell knew which was more restrictive, regressive, and fearful. I think this one of the album’s most emotionally palpable songs, especially with Shires’ background vocals turning this track into a family-band situation.
And like that, it’s over. Like I said, this is a pretty brief, straightforward album. “The Nashville Sound” isn’t going to challenge you too much unless the idea of some fairly run-of-the-mill statements of resentment against Donald Trump and interpersonal discrimination really grinds your gears. It’s an accessible, pleasing record with some truly great moments, and it properly re-introduces Jason Isbell as one of modern country’s best lyricists and songwriters. His approach may not be quite as artful as Sturgill Simpson, nor quite as downtrodden as Jamey Johnson, nor is he as good a singer as Chris Stapleton, and he couldn’t put together a 24-track double album quite as good as Miranda Lambert’s last record. With all that said, though, I do like this album, and I think it would serve as a nice point of introduction for someone who still hasn’t quite crossed the barrier from enjoying “everything except country” to just enjoying whatever you like, without being bogged down by genre descriptors.
SCORE — 7.00 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Last of My Kind, White Man’s World, If We Were Vampires, Chaos and Clothes, Something to Love