Jason Isbell stares down ghosts with ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell performs in 2017 at The Fox Theater in Oakland.
Michael Smyth/Tahoe Onstage

The marriage of musical notes to lyric sounds like a simple concept. The right tone and cadence set the scene in the mind’s eye for the emotion of a lyric to bathe in. Jason Isbell’s gift as a songwriter is his mastery of the union, and the comfort it provides the listener to receive his message.

With his latest release “Reunions” Isbell has crafted a half-dozen absolute gems of tone and lyric. Along with his band The 400 Unit, he’s also forged into new territory.

“Reunions” finds an eight-year-sober Isbell (pronounced Iz-bull), giving himself permission to look back from a safe distance and revisit some of the people, places, and decisions that brought him to where he is today.

Recorded in Nashville’s RCA Studio A and teamed up once again with the masterful Dave Cobb producing, “Reunions” delivers a bigger sound than just Isbell the songwriter plucking out melodies and tugging at one’s heart. Each member of The 400 Unit’s contributions feel more evident than in the past. The tiny nuances and accents beyond Isbell’s poetic lyrics and strong vocal, warrant a listen through headphones to turn a good record to great.

Dropping the needle on the first cut, “What’ve I Done To Help” launches with a pleading lyric of self-examination of both himself and a commentary on a society in chaos. But the repetitive call of “What’ve I done to help?” (with backing vocals from David Crosby) eventually folds in as another element of the star of the tune, which is the sweet soul groove anchored by bassist Jimbo Hart and augmented on keys by Derry deBorja.

At 6:41 it is by far the longest track on the record. But to borrow a worn cliché, it’s so in-the-pocket that by the time Isbell’s wailing slide guitar solo concludes, the listener’s senses are lit and ready for what is to come.

“Dreamsicle” settles things back down and focuses on children of divorce and the transient existence and temporary friendships that can produce a sense of isolation and confusion.

I guess we’re leaving town again/we’re moving out and moving in/Gotta break the news to all my friends/but they won’t care.”

The opening acoustic guitar is simple and reflective, perhaps mirroring the lack of comprehension of the situation by a younger child. As the song and the chapters of this life progress, along with the unanswered questions of why, Sadler Vaden’s guitar work swirls it all together.

While perhaps unintentional, “Only Children” could be a companion to “Dreamsicle.” While more melancholy in tone, the central character seems to be reflecting on a friend that is lost and troubled, but they can’t stay away from because they’re connected by shared circumstances.

Every kid in cutoffs could be you/Remember when we used to meet at the bottom of Mobile Street/do what the broken people do.

The friend passes away while still young, leaving only unresolved questions of what a longer life may have produced.

Jason Isbell is at heart a guitar player whose self-examination and discipline in sobriety has transformed him into a prolific songwriter, often overshadowing his instrumental prowess. Track 4, “Overseas,” reminds us that Isbell is both.

While the lyric represents a couple separated politically with one having to move overseas, it could just as easily be about a relationship separated by a wall in the same house by a differing in philosophy. The burning licks and solo work coming from Isbell’s fingers perfectly emote the yearning and loneliness of separation from love beyond one’s control, supporting the lyric to perfection.

If Jason Isbell had decided to name the album for a song rather than thematically, it may very well have been named for Track No. 6, “River”. While it tonally flows and meanders on its piano roots, the pleasantness and ease of the melody belies a dark individual who’s done some pretty bad shit. The central character uses the flowing waters to conceal their crimes, while at the same time using the anonymous and ever-changing body of water as a soundboard for absolution.

The river hears my secrets/things I cannot tell a soul/like the children that I’ve orphaned/and the fortune that I stole.

But the river provides no absolution and disclosure to a person is the only way to truly confess, which doesn’t seem to be an option. Resigned to remaining tormented by their choices until death, their life continues like a river until both reach their final destination and cease to exist.

While tricking us a bit tonally with “River,” Isbell once again matches a sensitive subject with the right aural setting on “St. Peter’s Autograph.” The song addresses his artist-wife Amanda Shires’ (The Highwomen) relationship with guitarist Neal Casal, and her subsequent grieving following his unexpected suicide in 2019.

Isbell comments in the promo release notes about jealousy and possessiveness of women being exhibited by the men he grew up around. It’s unclear if he’s struggled with this himself, making reparations for how he wished he’d acted, or perhaps simply putting in to words the way he wanted to support her.

What do I do to let you know/That I’m not haunted by his ghost/Let him dance around our room/Let him smell of your perfume.

The album closes with “Letting You Go.” A country ballad about being a father to he and Shires’ four-year-old daughter Mercy. Country roots, and a dash of the late John Prine’s sensibilities, help Isbell convey his realization that fatherhood is more about Mercy’s preparation than protection.

It’s a fitting way to conclude “Reunions” that offers yet another peek into Isbell’s life journey. He says he sometimes grows tired of writing about himself. But until something more compelling comes along, we’ll happily take 40-minute slices of his genuine tone and lyrics.

  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  • ‘Reunions’
  • Label: Southeastern Records
  • Release: May 15, 2020

ABOUT Michael Smyth

Michael Smyth
Michael Smyth moved to Reno in 2007 after living more than 40 years in the Bay Area. In addition to going to live shows, he enjoys golf, skiing and fly-fishing. Check out his website https://michaelsmythmedia.com/

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