On the opening number of Jason Isbell’s latest record ‒ “Last of My Kind,” a John Prine tribute even by Isbell standards ‒ the accomplished singer-songwriter entertains the notion that he belongs to a dying breed. Over the next ten tracks, he proceeds to drive that point home, displaying both his unmatched mastery as a lyricist and his unflinching willingness to expand into new musical territory.
Featuring the revival of frequent backing band The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound is at once a departure from Isbell’s most recent efforts dissecting his tales of addiction and recovery, and a return to his Southern rock origins.
That’s not to say that Isbell doesn’t display a softer side on this record. He benefits from the might of a full band on up-tempo power surges like “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope the High Road,” but his soul truly shines through on the acoustic tracks, such as “If We Were Vampires,” which embodies the somber magic he crafted on 2013’s Southeastern and is destined to be played at weddings all across The Bible Belt. The song tells the story of a romance, realizing that no matter how perfect it may seem, both lovers will end up dying in each other’s arms. However, it is the looming threat of death that gives their love its value: “Maybe time running out is a gift / I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift.” Tearjerkers are in Isbell’s wheelhouse (many of us are still recovering from “Elephant”) and this song stands alongside his most venerable work, sure to become a touring encore staple.
Throughout the album, Isbell tries to use personal experience to frame larger societal issues, to varying degrees of cultural relevance. In “White Man’s World,” he acknowledges the blind spots brought on by his privilege, particularly in regards to the differences between his world and the one his daughter will experience: “I thought this world could be hers one day / But her momma knew better.” This trend continues on “Anxiety,” Isbell’s nearly seven-minute jam session which addresses mental health in a way that is well-intentioned, but ultimately a bit too generic for its own good. He even takes a moment in “Hope the High Road” to flip a middle finger to the current presidential administration.
One of the most biting tracks on the record, “Chaos and Clothes” examines the demise of Ryan Adams’s marriage to Mandy Moore. Encased in an Elliott Smith inspired chord progression. Isbell uses his friendship with Adams to detail a story of love and loss. While the viewpoint of the song remains consistent, it isn’t always clear whether its stance is judgemental or empathetic toward the downfall of its subject.
With the Springsteen-esque “Cumberland Gap,” Isbell taps into the frustration of the working class (“And if you don’t sit facing the window / You could be in any town”) before bleeding into “Tupelo,” a pop country ballad about escapism that actually practices what it preaches. The smooth, soulful stylings of the track are ripe for a summer cookout, and yet it reigns in the fantasy long enough to face the reality of the situation: “She never lived up to my memory / Driving fast with the windows down / A past I don’t belong to now / A mystery.”
The first record released since the birth of his daughter, The Nashville Sound proves that fatherhood has brought with it a change in perspective for Isbell. Songs like “White Man’s World” don’t beat around the bush about where is motivations lie: “I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.” Isbell ends the album with “Something to Love,” an endearing piece of advice to his daughter: “Just find what makes you happy girl and do it ’til you’re gone.” The vitality of the familial themes is cemented by the inclusion of Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, whose fiddle musings and vocal harmonies bring a sweet affection to these songs that wasn’t found on Isbell’s early work.
The album’s opening and closing tracks form bookends, both expressing the swirling emotions that come with being a fish out of water. Jason Isbell is a man between worlds ‒ shifting between the rural South and the buzz of the metropolis, between the dynamism of rock and roll and the sincerity of country songs. On The Nashville Sound, these worlds collide, as Isbell exposes traces of his past demons and continues to encompass the best that contemporary Americana has to offer.