Editor’s note: Jason Isbell’s new album “Something More Than Free” (Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers) received the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album and the tune “24 Frames” earned a Grammy for Best American Roots Song.
Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free” takes the general, whirring images of life and slows them down into tiny vignettes that reveal just how complex the human experience is.
Isbell is a master songwriter whose precise and honest lyrics are enough to leave one emotionally naked after hearing them. He proved this much on his stellar 2013 album “Southeastern,” which, among other stories, detailed his new-found sobriety and marriage. “Something More Than Free” is a continuation of his candid art and his ability to illuminate the nooks and crannies of one’s spirit, the places thought to be specific to one’s life, and show the common thread that passes through everyone.
The documental scope in Isbell’s songs is echoed in the album’s lead single “24 Frames.” Isbell hints that reflecting on the past can excavate buried memories and emotions that aren’t always ready to see the light of day in the fraught chorus, “You thought God was an architect/ Now you know he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow/ And everything you built was all for show/ Goes up in flames in 24 frames.”
Though it can blow up in your face later, Isbell understands the need to dispose of tumultuous experiences, as he goes over the process of trying to bury his own demons on the wearisome “How To Forget.” Isbell isn’t afraid to tackle two seemingly opposing convictions as he knows the back-and-forth exists in all people and is an essential part of living in this world.
Isbell has stated in numerous interviews his inspiration for songs is as simple as him just writing about what he knows. What he has shown over his prolific career is that he knows about the human experience and its assorted viewpoints. Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle on a handful of tracks, were both born to young mothers and “Children of Children” is his ode to their experience.
As we grow older we begin to realize our parents are as flawed and human as we are and Isbell notes this shift in perspective with his tragically beautiful recognition of “all the years I took from her just by being born.” His guitar sways gently as he sings this line and as the drums kick-in, your heart bottoms out under the gravity of that thought, only to be swept back up by a gorgeous string section and surging electric guitar. It is the most dramatic music he has put lyrics too, but it fits the tone of the song perfectly and it is one the cornerstones of this album and his career.
On other parts of the album, Isbell mines for the more nuanced aspects of life people can glance over. On the fluttering “The Life You Choose” Isbell takes the time to wonder, “Are you living the life you choose/ Are you living the life that chose you?” In such a culturally demanding era it is a question that begs an answer.
Elsewhere, with just a guitar and his voice Isbell paints a picture of a couple avoiding the pitfalls of faded love in “Flagship,” personified by another couple at a bar who are sitting “1,000 miles apart.” The lyrics seem to suggest the couple is confidently nurturing its love, another classic tale of love prevailing. However, beneath the kisses, Isbell’s hushed delivery reveals a different interpretation of the story, where the couple is shaky in its dedication and approaching the disastrous brink, as if they are treading water in the eddies before a waterfall.
With the critical acclaim that “Southeastern” received, a worthy follow-up would be a daunting task. However, “Something More Than Free” is on equal footing as its predecessor and taking the two albums together, it is clear Isbell is writing the best songs of his life right now.
“Something More Than Free”
Release: July 17, 2015
Notable Tracks: “Flagship,” “Children of Children,” “24 Frames”