Jason Isbell – Weathervanes
With the gifts that he has, Jason Isbell has been able to comfortably inhabit any number of musical genres – we Americanans may claim him as ours, but rock, country and good ol’ fashion singer-songwriter are all styles he’s mastered. But his North Star has always been, well, the South. And his new album, Weathervanes, shows how he spent the mostly pandemic-filled three years since releasing Reunions – making the Southern rock record that has seemed predetermined since he first stepped on stage with Drive-By Truckers at age 22. More than two decades later, the South is where his head, his heart and his history all reside, and telling some of those tales – in a musical style reminiscent of many of his heroes – is what pushes Weathervanes past his recent, “merely great” records to the storytelling level he reached 10 years ago with Southeastern.
Weathervanes is long and dense. Long with 13 songs, including two that clock in over six minutes each (but not a superfluous second to be found). Dense with the kind of details and lore that Isbell is always good for. Lead track and first single “Death Wish” is a prime example of waste-free songwriting, with Isbell (eschewing any musical intro) jumping right into relating the complications of loving someone with mental illness. Derry deBorja’s piano and guest Morgan O’Shaughnessey’s strings reflect the up and down emotions present in a relationship that always feels touch-and-go, but it’s Isbell’s realization that he can’t “fix” a partner’s depression – “I don’t wanna fight with you, baby, but I won’t leave you alone.” These are the kind of fraught emotional situations that only became more acute during the pandemic – for all of us – and Isbell recalls his own inability to deal in “Middle of the Morning.” With a languid guitar intro that feels like a steamy Southern forenoon, and a nod to the marital discord found all over Running with Our Eyes Closed (the Sam Jones documentary based around the recording of 2020’s Reunions), Isbell freely recounts both maintaining his sobriety and his own failures to deal with unexpected (and, for a touring musician, unprecedented) downtime – “Yes I’ve tried to be grateful for my devils and call them by their names/But I’m tired and by the middle of the morning I need someone to blame.”
Songs like “Middle of the Morning” feature narrators who are pretty clearly a reflection of Isbell’s life, but part of the fun of his records is songs with characters who aren’t exactly him and trying to figure out which little details might touch on the personal. “King of Oklahoma” was penned by Isbell while on the set of Killers of the Flower Moon (Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film, shot in the Sooner State), and, while the music has a cinematic arc to it (and some fantastic fiddle work from Amanda Shires), it boils down to the story of a guy with a bad back and a failed marriage – “She used to make me feel like the King of Oklahoma/But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore.” “Strawberry Woman,” a largely acoustic tune with a Mickey Raphael pop-in on harmonica, also recalls better days in a relationship – “We walked through weather and we walked through time.” Much of Weathervanes has this kind of “sliding doors” quality – Isbell and Shires’ marriage endured a not-so-secret rough patch (seriously – watch the doc), and he’s willing – even curious – to look at where other paths might have led. “If You Insist” is a skiffle-ish tune and a persistent (but always polite) late-night bar come-on from a not-so-young man – “I’m too tired to get excited/And I’m too old to be ashamed.” It’s not sexy – at all – which makes it all too real.
Isbell’s elevated plateau in the music world also seems to be on his mind. The man runs his own label and owns his music outright, but he knows he was this close to being (in BJ Barham’s words) a casualty of rock ‘n’ roll. “When We Were Close,” with big, chunky guitar riffs that recall Prisoner-era Ryan Adams, reflects a measure of survivor’s guilt over a Justin Townes Earle who didn’t make it through the same (mostly self-induced) trauma – “I was the worse of the two of us/But ‘Rex’s Blues’ wasn’t through with us/You were bound for glory and grown to die/But why wasn’t I” (shades of Townes Van Zandt are all over this one – I’ll leave it to the listener to do the math).
And “Vestavia Hills,” loaded with slide guitar and accordion, comes from the perspective of an elder watching “the boy genius” fumble his way through nascent stardom and the accompanying substance abuse – “I bet you don’t remember me tying your shoes.” Isbell, in recovery for over a decade now, has no intention of sliding back to that version of himself, but he also knows he was a hair’s breadth away from being that guy permanently.
So, that “Southern rock” thing I mentioned? It’s all over Weathervanes in ways both outright and subtle. “King of Oklahoma” balances its guitar solo with deBorja’s piano – a very Mike Campbell/Benmont Tench moment (and Isbell is an avowed Tom Petty fan). “Save The World,” a summation of a parent’s fears on gun violence, features a twin guitar solo. And “This Ain’t It,” already declared the Song of the Summer in at least one Jeep cruising around Colorado, is all kinds of Southern jammy-ness with congas from Chad Gamble and dueling solos from Isbell (on the left side of your headphones) and Sadler Vaden (on the right). But it’s also in the lyrical details. “Cast Iron Skillet” is a kitchen instruction manual, a murder ballad and a caution against being a dickish, racist dad. “White Beretta” mentions the heavy pall that religion has over personal decision making – “I thank God you weren’t brought up like me/With all that shame and certainty” – while also name checking an all-time, should’ve-been-Southern-band, Son Volt. And album-wrapper “Miles” is a seven-minute, tempo-changing epic that, at its heart, addresses Isbell’s favorite (and most vital) topic – raising a daughter in this mess of a world – with aching realism: “As she leaves, I’ll tell her don’t get hurt and don’t get pregnant/But she won’t acknowledge me at all). But Isbell maintains the hope that his daughter will grow up in a different South than he did. Back in “Middle of the Morning,” he sings, “I was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man.” Luckily for his daughter, and for us, he got just far enough from his raising.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “This Ain’t It” – I can write thousands of words about the meaning of this particular lyric or the sound of that awesome guitar riff, but all this song makes me want to do is turn it up as loud as my ears can stand and share it with as many people as I possibly can this summer. And isn’t that really what good music is all about?
Weathervanes was produced by Jason Isbell (additional production by Matt Pence), engineered by Gena Johnson, Matt Ross-Spang, Michael Bethancourt and Matt Pence (assistant engineer – Austin Brown), mixed by Sylvia Massey and Ian Rickard and mastered by Pete Lyman. All songs written by Jason Isbell. The 400 Unit is Derry deBorja (acoustic piano, electric piano, organ, accordion, synths, Therevox, tack piano, background vocals), Chad Gamble (drums, percussion, congas), Jimbo Hart (electric bass, bass ukulele) and Sadler Vaden (electric and acoustic guitars, electric and acoustic 12 string guitars, background vocals). Special guests on the album include Amanda Shires (fiddle, background vocals), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Sylvia Massy (background vocals), Ian Rickard (background vocals) and Morgan O’Shaughnessey (strings).
Go here to order Weathervanes (out June 9): https://stores.portmerch.com/jasonisbell/
Check out tour dates here: https://www.jasonisbell.com/shows