Jason Isbell’s twang betrays his Alabama roots.
When my parents divorced, they decided to share custody of me, shuttling me back and forth across the city lines that divided them. My mom lived in Friendswood, a town filled with Romney look-a-likes without the Mormon sensibilities. Dad lived in Alvin, famous for being the birthplace of fastball specialist Nolan Ryan and not much else. I could see the shifts in GDP just driving between them. On the Friendswood side was a mega-church and lake-filled, private neighborhoods. If you kept driving, you’d meet dirty car lots and Alvin’s main, dingy strip. Wealth aside, both were small towns molded by football, Jesus and stagnation. These are important places in the American mythos, places to be from and to escape from. Jason Isbell’s twang betrays his Alabama roots, but the tales of Something More Than Free trace that cultural motif from Florida to Washington. Isbell’s stories are composed of escapist fantasies and the hope of leaving the past in the rearview mirror, all of them moments of desperation and chaos that catalyze change.
Isbell, a former member of southern-rock vagabonds Drive-By Truckers, broke into his own with his last album Southeastern, which unflinchingly detailed his bout with alcoholism. He’s since reformed, and the specter of all-consuming booze only comes up a few times on Something More Than Free. The protagonist of “If it Takes a Lifetime” dryly notes, “working for the county keeps me pissin’ clear,” while the down and out hero of “Speed Trap Town” goes to a Thursday night football game, only to “sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name.” Something More Than Free is dotted with these characters, Isbell writing scene after scene of brilliant short stories that can only happen with small deaths in small towns.
Like the best country album of last year, Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, the album’s power is all in the narrator’s hands. The stories are only engulfing when they’re sold, and Isbell is one hell of a salesman. The aforementioned wiseass of “If it Takes a Lifetime” introduces himself by singing “I’ve been working here/ Monday it’ll be a year/ and I can’t recall a day when I didn’t want to disappear,” but he’s stuck there by a sense of responsibility, as he’s “hell-bent on growing up.” Ornery sarcasm doesn’t carry over to the other characters of Something More Than Free. Isbell, or one of his stand-ins, encounters an ex while hanging out with his current girl: “Give her weed/ Give her wine/ Give her anything but time/ Get her out of here.” He moans, “She won’t stop telling stories/ And most of them are true.” The breezy background is tinged with urgency as Isbell turns verse two into a heart to heart with his old flame, as honest as it is painful. “Tell the jury what you think, was I good to you?/…Now that I’ve found someone who makes me want to live/ Does that make my leaving harder to forgive?”
Isbell’s economical lyric style makes “How to Forget,” and everything else on Something More Than Free, cut quickly to the heart. The record oddly parallels another album of the year frontrunner, Vince Staples’ Summertime ‘06. The stories are divided by thousands of miles and musical motifs, but both artists brook no bullshit, as concise as they are vivid. Another singer might have made a full song over how a parent’s alcoholism fuels teen angst, but Isbell cuts it to two lines, “Jack and coke in your momma’s car/ You were reading The Bell Jar.”
Isbell and Staples both have the ability to crush and enthrall the listener from line one. On “Surf,” Staples spits, “Broken home, all I had was my homeboys/ Either build or destroy, what you going for?” while Isbell opens his title track crooning, “When I get home from work/ I’ll call up all my friends/ And we’ll go bust up something beautiful that we’ll have to build again.” A short story has to hook from the start, and Something More Than Free is a master class in engrossing lyrics.
It doesn’t hurt that most of Something More Than Free is absolutely devastating. “The Life You Chose” has Isbell confronting an ex, asking “Do you live with a man who knows you?/ Like I thought I did back then?” before admitting, “Well I guess I never did.” “Speed Trap Town” is Isbell at his most aching, portraying a young man trapped in some no-name city, drowning in depression and booze. While watching the local football team get shellacked by a “5A” school, he realizes the insatiable need for football in the South frames “a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.” After the game, a seed of an idea forms to leave the town forever and never look back. It germinates as he recounts, “The doctor said daddy wouldn’t make it year/ But the holidays are over and he’s still here/ How long can they keep you in the ICU?/ Veins through the skin like a faded tattoo.”
The music on Something More Than Free is all backdrop, but a sterling, spotless one. Everything centers on Isbell’s tenor, and his band is exceptionally tight whether matching the rueful smirk of “If it Takes a Lifetime” or cradling the crumbling nostalgia of “The Life You Chose.” “Hudson Commodore” is the band at its best, with Amanda Shires (Isbell’s wife) creating gorgeous textures in the bridge with her fiddle over finger-plucked guitar. The track also has the full band singing in spine chilling harmony on the chorus, an effect Isbell puts to good use throughout the record, knowing when to pair his drawl with other voices to goosebump-inducing perfection on “The Life You Chose” or “Flagship.” His own voice easily fluctuates between a soft, caring croon and a hoarse yell, creating the drunken tension of finale “To a Band That I Loved.”
Something More Than Free’s most ambitious move is “Children of Children.” It clocks in at nearly six minutes, and every second is vital, from the dusty guitar that opens the curtain to the final, breath-taking notes of strings fading into the night. Isbell sets the scene with “sepia and saddle horses” and twists the story between past and present, juxtaposing two young lovers (“17 ain’t old enough to reason with the pain/ How could we expect to stay in love when neither knew the meaning of, the difference between sacred and profane”) and of their mothers. “You were riding on your mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn/ All the years you took from her/ Just by being born,” Isbell sings just before the strings burst into existence, carrying warmth and sadness in equal amounts. An electrifying guitar solo leaves the story on a cliffhanger, but not without hope.
“24 Frames” holds Isbell’s most piercing moment. The chorus, “You thought God was an architect/ Now you know/ He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow” underlines the sudden, absolute moments of chaos that dominate Something More Than Free. Nothing goes the way it should: the hometown hero flees, the drunk gets sober, the high school sweethearts leave each other in the arms of new lovers. Man plans and God laughs. But Isbell is sure to point out that divine explosions might be blessings in disguise, because the unknowable, terrible uncertainty of God’s work makes it human.