If there’s any pressure behind a new album with the 400 Unit, Isbell meets it with his usual gift for turning phrases and finding melodies.
Jason Isbell’s career doesn’t have an artistic peak. There was a jump with 2013’s Southeastern but that record simply set a new normal for a mix of folk, country and rock that has led to a string of award-winning releases. If there’s any pressure behind a new album with the 400 Unit, Isbell meets it with his usual gift for turning phrases and finding melodies. Reunions, though, increases the polish a little, adding some formality to the presentation. Fortunately, there’s nothing staid about it, as Isbell enters complexity with both aplomb and vulnerability.
With Isbell sounding like Very Professional Isbell, he risks obscuring the heart of his lyrics. He’s never been a formalist, but on Reunions, there’s a steadiness that could disguise the subject matter. Still, cleanliness never moves into rote performance on the album. Isbell covers old ground by revisiting his alcoholism on “It Gets Easier,” but he finds new ways into the topic, finessing what still matters. If the song keeps an even keel, Isbell cuts right to it, singing, “Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking/ Same dream I have about twice a week/ I had one glass of wine/ I woke up feeling fine/ And that’s how I knew it was a dream.” He’s been open about his recovery and hearing another song on the topic might sound like a requisite part of the process, but he makes it pay off with his delivery.
His own biography tends to find its way into these songs. Album closer “Letting You Go” projects that bio into the future, as he imagines giving away his daughter in marriage. It’s one of the most traditional pieces on the album, fitting into a particular Nashville genre as the band plays it as straight as Isbell’s lyrics. It’s well done and avoids becoming maudlin, but it lacks the distinctness Isbell so often provides. The album seldom misses (though it does on the ’80s rock “Running with Our Eyes Closed”), but it too often settles for comfort.
Isbell sounds his best when challenging both his listener and his audience. He’s never deliberately obtuse, but he can still be unexpected. Opener “What’ve I Done to Help” questions Isbell’s limited work for justice. He’s been outspoken in song, social media and interviews on a number of topics, but here he asks himself if he’s grown distant from those who struggle, choosing to embrace safety and protect his family instead of working for a greater good. He doesn’t offer a way out, letting the song find strength in the questioning.
On Southern rock single “Be Afraid,” though, Isbell surges forward with his activism, noting that he “won’t shut up and sing,” a reference to the Dixie Chicks’ political struggles, as well as the political establishment’s general desire to silent dissident celebrity voices. Isbell calls his colleagues (and himself) to acknowledge the possible repercussions of speaking it, but to “do it anyway.” “If your words add up to nothing,” he sings, “Then you’re making a choice/ To sing a cover when we need a battle cry.” Isbell doesn’t turn to easy answers or platitudes. He recognizes the complexity of the situation, but struggles through it.
Likewise “Overseas” matches bits of narratives that avoid specifics but point to the challenges of travel and the hurt of distance. Isbell catches a particular feeling without building a complete story or drawing sides to the story. This sort of sketch works well. When Isbell begins the sing with “This used to be a ghost town/ But even the ghosts got out,” he sums all the background we need in two lines. In other songs, the past is more than background. The album’s title suggests his reuniting with people and moments from the past. Both “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children” (which employs wonderful tension around the title phrase) provide valuable connections between past and present, expanding a sense of time.
With an encompassing vision for past, present and future, Reunions contains plenty of memorable, affecting tracks. It has a few missteps and doesn’t carry the persistent urgency of The Nashville Sound. Isbell and the 400 Unit have hit their groove (albeit with no peak), and it enables them to create a record with everything in its right place. The disc stands out for its precision, in which Isbell uses its pristine packaging to showcase ragged insides, the drive of a vital voice that speaks beyond just the music world.