One of the best country/roots albums released yet this year.
Credited to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound is decidedly a group effort. There is a sense of collaborative cohesion amongst the players, and while Isbell’s affecting songwriting remains at the center of each and every track here, his bandmates help further flesh out his narratives, which tackle the the usual country music staples of love and loss, heartache and regret.
Of course, it’s not all maudlin understatement. Opening track, “Last of My Kind,” takes a contemplative look at the changing times, landscapes and social mores. It’s a more nuanced take on the usual griping about change in the face of fading tradition, once again proving Isbell to be an exemplary songwriter. “Daddy said the river would always lead me home/ But the river can’t take me back in time and daddy’s dead and gone,” he sings before relating that the family farm is now a parking lot, the implication of urban sprawl swallowing a slower, more thoughtful way of life.
A fine opening statement, the track is by no means indicative of the rest of the music on the album, as “Cumberland Gap” quickly makes clear. Not to be confused with the traditional bluegrass number, Isbell’s “Cumberland Gap” is a surging, swirling bit of roots rock with a chorus hook that swings for the fences. Here, too, Isbell reflects on better times before big coal took over, causing pain and strife not only within the communities effected, but the very landscape itself. Lyrically knotty and richly detailed, it fits in nicely with the grand tradition of southern writers, both in song and literature. And really, Isbell’s writing often reads as short stories in miniature, offering character studies that lend a relatability to each song’s protagonist. It’s further proof of Isbell’s rising status as one of the best songwriters working today.
Well-structured while being musically and thematically cohesive, The Nashville Sound is an album in the traditional sense. There is no picking and choosing, no a la carte selections readily apparent, each track instead functioning as part of the greater whole. Indeed, Isbell’s working aesthetic harkens back to a bygone era in which songwriting and musical cohesion were of far greater importance than crafting radio-ready singles. And given the strength of Isbell’s writing both here and on his previous albums, and the corresponding success and public recognition each has earned, it’s easy to see that this type of approach, in the right hands, can still reap rewards both critically and commercially.
“White Man’s World” finds Isbell and company moving away from the personal and branching out into a more socially-conscious message song. “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war/ Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for/ Still breathing, it’s not too late/ We’re all carrying one great burden, sharing one thing,” he sings before expounding on his white guilt. “I’m a white man living on a white man’s street/ I got the bones of the red man under my feet/ The highway runs through the burial grounds” and “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes/ Wishing I had never been one of the guys/ Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke/ Old times ain’t forgotten.” The latter lyric is particularly poignant given the continuing, heated debate surrounding heritage and history and the differences between each when viewed within a contemporary context. In lesser hands, it would be a clunky, heavy-handed sermon easily devolving into tonally deaf, laughable territory.
Elsewhere, “Anxiety” starts off as a heavy, surging roots rock number before breaking down to the heart of the matter as Isbell’s voice enters with, “Anxiety, how do you always get the best of me?/ I’m out here living in a fantasy/ I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” The last line in particular may well be the most concise summation of the feeling surrounding anxiety.
Isbell, ever the deft songwriter, makes the most of his inimitable ability to take the otherwise mundane or cliché and turn it into something beautiful. While this may not be the best album of his career—one which stretches back over several decades now, all the way back to his tenure in Drive-By Truckers—The Nashville Sound is certainly near the top, and it’s one of the best country/roots albums released yet this year.