We’re lucky to have a songwriter as warm and talented as Jason Isbell to share with us his journey, a not uncommon one, of troubled young drifter and alcoholic to (relatively) contented family man, as anyone who’s followed the progress of his last three albums will be aware. A family man and proud, 2017’s The Nashville Sound was doubtless his greatest triumph outside of his marriage to Amanda Shires or the birth of his daughter. It continued Isbell’s journey towards contentment, one that began with his previous solo album Something More Than Free. However, it also remembered the dark times that went before that, as memorably witnessed on 2013’s Southeastern, where his past as an alcoholic was fairly directly explored alongside other dark subject matter.
His new album, Reunions, also recorded with trusty backup band The 400 Unit and produced by Dave Cobb (who’s done a grand job on most of his albums), is in a similar vein to The Nashville Sound thematically, if a little more dispirited. Isbell’s battle with alcoholism comes up again, clearly something he feels proud of triumphing over and really should do. He expresses the struggle so clearly and powerfully that it must surely inspire legions of others in Alabama and all around the world who are battling the same demon: “It Gets Easier” is a clear album highlight, tied to the realistic yet inspirational chorus of “It gets easier but it never gets easy”. You never doubt for a second that the battle with the bottle is a perennially difficult one for Isbell, but you also never doubt for a second that it’s a battle he believes is worth fighting.
Battles worth fighting were all over The Nashville Sound, from the working-class strivers in “The Cumberland Gap” and “Tupelo” to the concerned white man of “White Man’s World” managing to find faith for a feminist future in the fire of his daughter’s eye. And if Reunions generally sounds more downbeat and world-weary, even if it doesn’t have a seven-minute attack of “Anxiety”, well, don’t blame Isbell. The world has gotten a lot grimmer, as we all know, even before the plague descended on our fragile heads. Isbell is not alone in sensing this and mirroring it in his music; in fact his musical brethren the Drive-By Truckers released their bleakest album just a few months ago, the distraught and weary The Unraveling.
Yet whilst the Drive-By Truckers’ despair was operating on a national and an explicitly political plane, Isbell’s tends inwards on Reunions. It’s an album of ghosts, mostly unwanted, from the past, arising to haunt him again. There’s the literally dead friend addressed on “Only Children” and his wife’s dead friend on “St. Peter’s Autograph”, plus the friend who’s dead to him for other reasons on “Running With Our Eyes Closed” (about his friendship with the disgraced Ryan Adams). Then there’s the beginning lines of “Overseas”: “This used to be a ghost town/But even the ghosts got out/And the sound of the highway died/There’s ashes in the swimming pool.”
Ghosts and death haunt Reunions so relentlessly that it can’t help but feel like a generally bleak affair. This feeling is accentuated by the tone of the music; whereas The Nashville Sound was packed with loud electric guitar crunch and the opportunity for his band to rock out, Reunions has a more solemn acoustic feel for the most part. Finger-picking acoustic guitar is the dominant sound on each of the album’s opening three tracks, particularly the pretty yet somnolent “Dreamsicle”, and indeed acoustic instruments seem to be heard much more than electric on the rest of the album. There are exceptions: “Overseas” climaxes with a killer two-minute electric guitar solo that will delight the many rock fans that Isbell has managed to attract to his base. And “Be Afraid” has an arena-ready chorus, with vocals recalling Bono of all people, that should do the same. But generally the aura is less punchy and upbeat than The Nashville Sound, more akin to the slow laments of Southeastern.
Yet, as fans of Southeastern will know, that doesn’t mean the music can’t be mighty pretty – or bold. Isbell takes a risk by starting the album off with its longest and in many ways most depressing song, “What’ve I Done to Help”, and if you don’t think that’s a big deal then just try and name as many albums off the top of your head that have the guts to do the same. Backing vocals from his wife add a surging uplift to “Dreamsicle”, and her fiddle-playing – though sparingly used on this particular album – always adds a welcome sweetness. And speaking of sweetness, “St. Peter’s Autograph” is a wonder, sounding much like a cousin of The White Album’s “Blackbird” or “Mother Nature’s Son”, and with some of Isbell’s tenderest vocals on lines such as “What do I do to make you smile?” Plus there’s the album’s closer, a real heartbreaker, an ode to his daughter’s growing up that’s poignantly titled “Letting You Go”.
These tributes to his wife and daughter go a long way to help explaining Isbell’s warmth and homegrown appeal. Country music is great at disproving the lie that domesticity in art is somehow naff, boring or “bourgeois”. In Reunions, as elsewhere in Isbell’s career, the simple matter of settling down and raising a family is made to sound like the greatest adventure of them all.