Something More Than Free (Southeastern Records)
Jason Isbell hasn’t been clean for so long that you can avoid discussing rehab. It’s a story that’s followed around the Alabama-born songwriter since just before the release of his 2013 masterpiece Southeastern. A former member of the Drive-By Truckers—and author of some of that band’s most moving, memorable songs—Isbell drank himself out of the spotlight and into treatment, which he left in 2012, the story goes, a changed man and a newly potent artist. His previous albums had included some critically respected highlights but often suffered from unevenness or a flirtation with melodrama. Southeastern was a leaner work, and more tightly focused: among its tales of recovery and reconciliation were fewer skippable tracks than ever before. Something More Than Free, released this summer, continues both trends, as Isbell finds new depths in his preoccupations while producing his most balanced, filler-free effort yet.
The album opens with “If It Takes a Lifetime,” the kind of blue-collar character study that has long proven fertile territory for Isbell. Driven by a bouncing, pocketed rhythm and a bright fiddle motif, the song has the energy of a song The Band never got around to recording while immediately signaling a slightly lighter tone than Southeastern regularly used. The speaker of the song is adjusting to sobriety and to living for himself, but as the song’s chorus suggests, he’s committed for the long haul: “My day will come if it takes a lifetime,” sings Isbell, with the sunny assuredness to make us believe him.
“If It Takes a Lifetime,” like many of the album’s highlights, pulls off a rather unique trick in making drama out of consistency, out of the struggle to follow one step with the next. In the album’s first lines, Isbell sings: “I been workin’ here / Monday it’ll be a year / And I can’t recall a day that I didn’t wanna disappear. But I keep on showin’ up / Hell bent on growing up / If it takes a lifetime.” These opening lines, and the rest of the song’s celebration of the long game, provide the opening statement to which the second track, “24 Frames” serves as a kind of complimentary rebuttal. “24 Frames” was the album’s first single, and in its chorus, the lines that seem to be emerging as the album’s most-quoted offer a warning: “You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb / Ready to blow.” The preceding verses are delivered like a devotional manual: “This is how you make yourself call your mother / This is how you make yourself closer to your brother / And remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing.”
The album’s first two songs give Isbell something like a survivor’s creed to explore for the rest of the album: Take things a day at a time, and remember that whatever crash will wipe out all your pretensions is just around the corner. In the liner notes to Southeastern, Isbell thanked the writers Peter Matthiesen and Denis Johnson “for the inspiration,” and it’s hard not to see similarities to, if not the influence of, Johnson’s hard-won rehab mysticism. The song “How to Forget,” for instance, features a speaker struggling to shed reminders of his substance-abusing past; a houseguest from the old days “won’t stop telling stories,” he sings, “and most of them are true.” But where Southeastern featured a bit more of the picaresque—underage dancing girls, benders in fleabag motels—Something More Than Free is more involved with making peace with the past and figuring out a way to keep moving forward.
The album’s emotional center is in its seventh and eighth tracks, the title song “Something More Than Free” and “Speed Trap Town.” Neither song is, in a strict sense, about substance, but both seem to make good on the promise of the album’s opening cuts. “Something More Than Free,” like “If It Takes a Lifetime,” sketches a laborer’s life, but it has traded the earlier song’s bounce for a poignant determination: “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts/I’m just lucky to have the work.” The chorus’ minor-key crescendo gives way to the triumph of the bridge, when Isbell sings: “And the day will come when I’ll find a reason/ Somebody proud to love a man like me/ My back is numb, my hands are freezing/ What I’m working for is something more than free.” The speakers on the album have, for the most part, come to stand on their own two feet for long enough to understand the virtues of having someone to lean on.
“Speed Trap Town” follows the title track, and it may be the most quintessentially Jason Isbell song on the record: a character study composed of perfectly observed detail, bittersweet dialogue, and the suffocating familiarity of place that Isbell understands as well as any working Southern writer. The speaker’s philandering state trooper father is wasting away in the hospital in a town to small to provide the relief of anonymity. Isbell’s range of genius is on full display in the four lines before the first chorus: “It’s a Thursday night, but there’s a high school game / Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name. / These 5-A bastards run a shallow cross / It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” I can’t think of another songwriter who would reach for “5-A bastards” to show us how far away hope can seem in a small town—a bigger school can come in and run your team off the field anytime they want. Just as importantly, in “Speed Trap Town,” the drink is not the cause of the song’s pain, but a symptom, one of the few means of escape. Eventually, our speaker finally decides to make a real escape and leaves town behind—no easy decision, but the kind of reach for a better future the album features in so many songs.
Like Southeastern, Something More Than Free was produced by in-demand Nashville talent Dave Cobb; like that album, this one also borrows elements from too many Southern styles to be categorized neatly as “country.” Occasionally, the album drags slightly, missing the dynamism of “Flying Over Water,” “Stockholm,” or “Super 8,” songs that provided a punchy bit of ballast to the more somber moments of Southeastern. “Flagship,” a sweetly recognizable love vignette, loses momentum, while “Children of Children” drags a bit before finding some pleasingly prog-ish heights during an extended slide guitar coda. Two later songs, “Hudson Commodore,” and “Palmetto Rose,” offer the kind of anthemic sing-along chorus that give Isbell’s live shows much of their power even if they don’t achieve the resonance of the album’s standouts.
In the end, this is Isbell’s most complete album collection yet. Fans who found him for the much-decorated showstopper songs from earlier albums—like “Cover Me Up” or “Alabama Pines”—may not find a single song that provides the sheer electricity those tracks do, but never has Isbell produced so little filler and so much nuance. The themes are familiar, but explored and expanded with a precision and humanity not even Jason Isbell has often matched. That is to say, this probably is a record about recovery, but one that extends the concept far beyond rehab.