Album Review: Jason Isbell, ‘Something More Than Free’
On his fifth album, Alabama-born singer-songwriter (and former Drive-by Trucker) Jason Isbell cements his ability to pack enormous punch into taught, concise lyrical phrasing that would make any poet jealous. The examples are too numerous to list here (you can basically pick from any verse), but Isbell's arresting delivery of lines like "I was riding on my mother's hip / She was shorter than the corn / And all the years I took from her / Just by being born" is offset by his ability to tuck his powerful observations into unassuming, even sweet vocal melodies. Indeed, Something More Than Free could double as a master class in the art of songwriting -- and the craft of penning lyrics in particular.
Musically speaking, Isbell shows remarkable ease navigating the backroads where traditional country bleeds into modern Americana. He's also skilled at deviating from those roads, such as on the breezy "Children of Children," where he dips into the Pacific Ocean waters of AM '70s rock a la James Taylor. But Isbell's choices show such tastefulness that not a single sound -- whether it be an acoustic guitar strum, electric burst of fire, fiddle squeal or Isbell's own vocal cry when he raises his voice -- intrudes on the arrangement or mission of the songs.
Like so many classic albums in this style, Something More Than Free has the feel of being well-traveled -- not necessarily geographically speaking, but in terms of how, as the listener, you almost get the feeling your feet ache from walking just a few minutes in Isbell's narrators' shoes. Such is Isbell's lyrical acuity that he can pack years' worth of experience into a short sequence of verses. Throughout, Isbell maintains a solemn view on hardship and redemption -- even when, on album opener "If It Takes a Lifetime," he's asserting his will to find something resembling peace.
Unlike many of his peers, however, Isbell's heartache doesn't come off as an affectation. Instead, his work crackles with genuine experience and hard-won wisdom. But where his last album, Southeastern, documented Isbell's real-life struggles with addiction and recovery, Something More Than Free delves into the business of trying to live with both feet planted firmly on the ground. That Isbell uncovers the struggles of functional living with as much precision as the thornier subjects on Southeastern says a lot about his literary flair -- and proves that true drama, in the hands of a skilled writer, never has to be melodramatic to tug on the heartstrings.