Some reviews require no fancy introduction by the writer, as the anticipation for the release is more than enough to capture the reader’s attention. The new album from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions, is the most eagerly awaited Americana release of 2020, so let’s dive right in.
Three years ago, Isbell and his band released The Nashville Sound, his most politically pointed album to date. However, even for someone not pleased with the election of Donald Trump the year prior, Isbell clung to some amount of optimism in songs like “Hope the High Road” (“There can’t be more of them than us/There can’t be more”). In 2020, though, he’s run out of patience, and not only with our current predicament. In the album’s first single, “Be Afraid,” he takes on those who won’t speak up when faced with a gigantic wrong – “We’ve been testing you/And you failed/To see how long you could sit with the truth/But you bailed.” Likewise, he refuses to be part of the “shut up and sing” crowd – “You tell the truth enough/You find it rhymes with everything.” But Isbell’s never been one to let himself off the hook. In the album’s first track, “What’ve I Done To Help,” he realizes that he can’t aid others from isolation – “Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher/Nothing given nothing found.” The best part about both of these tunes – they positively ROCK. “What’ve I Done” is an absolute wall of sound constructed by producer Dave Cobb and built off a solid bassline from Jimbo Hart, vocal accompaniment from David Crosby, and guitar riffs galore. “Be Afraid” is a Red Rocks-ready anthem, with keyboard flourishes from Derry deBorja and what one hopes will be windmills from Sadler Vaden at the end.
Despite the first two singles taking on the socio-political, Reunions turns out to be an intensely personal record. “Dreamsicle” reflects Isbell’s child-of-dvorce status – not just the obvious trauma of a boy’s parents splitting up, but all else that’s left behind: “Gotta break the news to all my friends/But they won’t care/They’ll just find another face.” Singing in the slightly higher voice of that 14-year-old boy, Isbell brings to the song his very best John Prine sensibilities; building the song around images – a lawn chair, new sneakers on a basketball court, mama’s red hair – and allows the listener to fill in the details of the young man’s story.
Prine’s other favorite technique was using humor to write about a potentially devastating scene, and Isbell shares a similar affinity. Isbell’s path to sobriety has been well-documented (by him) and celebrated (by his fans – witness the cheers that rise up every time he sings “I swore off that stuff/Forever this time”). But, in “It Gets Easier,” the seriousness and reverence are mostly stripped away, and he allows himself to laugh off his alcohol-filled (but ultimately sober) dreams, while still acknowledging the past chaos he’d wrought – “Last night I let myself remember/Times I forgot a woman’s name” – and what keeps him from going down that path again – “My daughter’s eyes when she’s ashamed.” The uptempo tune prominently features vocals and fiddle from 400 Uniteer Amanda Shires – appropriate since, as Isbell’s wife, she’s seen his struggles in this area more than most.
Isbell has said that he titled Reunions after the ghosts that seem to inhabit the record, While the great, much-mourned Prine is certainly one of those spirits, there’s another strong presence hanging over the record – Mark Knopfler. Isbell is a vocal fan of the Dire Straits guitar master, but I’ve never heard his influence over Isbell as much as I have here – the guitar solo on “Only Children” reflects Knopler’s sense of melody and tone, and “Running With Our Eyes Closed” would settle easily onto one of Dire Strait’s early, bluesier offerings. And when it comes to guitars, “Overseas,” which the band has been playing live for a year or so, is slightly more muscular in its studio incarnation, driven by some fierce playing – truthfully, this may be the band’s most guitar-centric album, and THAT’S saying something.
Beyond all its influences, axes, and studio wizardry, Reunions, like any Jason Isbell album, is built on its songs, and the man has never been better. “River,” a slower tune based on piano and fiddle, is an effort to escape – “Running ‘til you’re nothing/Sounds a lot like being free.” “St. Peter’s Autograph” is a touching admission that our past lives and relationships are what make us what we are today – “What do I do to let you know/That I’m not haunted by his ghost?” And, like The Nashville Sound, the record ends with a song to his and Shires’ daughter, Mercy. Like “Something to Love,” “Letting You Go” is bathed in down-home country sunshine as Isbell tries to connect the young girl in front of him with the woman she’ll grow to be – “To hear your first words/And to feel your first heartbreak.” Most songwriters might attempt this song when their daughter has left the nest – Miss Mercy is all of four years old. In each calamity we see now, Isbell sees a future. It’s brighter, and it’s sustained by folks who’ve seen us at our worst and learned from us at our best. That’s HIS storytelling gift.
Reunions was produced and mixed by Dave Cobb, engineered by Gena Johnson and mastered by Pete Lyman. The 400 Unit is Isbell (vocals, electric and acoustic guitars, piano), Derry deBorja (piano, organ, keyboards and Omnichord), Chad Gamble (drums and tambourine), Jimbo Hart (bass), Amanda Shires (fiddle and background vocals), and Sadler Vaden (electric and acoustic guitars). Additional musicians include Cobb (shaker) and David Crosby and Jay Buchanan (background vocals).
Order Reunions here: https://stores.portmerch.com/jasonisbell/?ffm=FFM_fa8f5357954926d6bd0f8265f96c9a90
Mr. Isbell is also releasing the album a week early (May 8) in participating independent record stores. Find one here: https://recordstoreday.com/UPC/644216970698
Check out a list of tour dates here: https://www.jasonisbell.com/shows