May 30, 2020


Jason Isbell's Alt-Alt-Country Masterpiece (DECLAN LEARY, May 30, 2020, National Review)

 Isbell is, by any artistic standard, a genius -- a once-in-a-generation talent, or more. The son of a house painter and grandson of a Pentecostal preacher, he burst onto the scene in 2001, joining Drive-by Truckers, primarily as a guitarist, at the ripe age of 22. Any word about his instrumental skill would be an understatement. Let this suffice: He can play the guitar almost as well as Amanda Shires (his wife and frequent collaborator) can play the fiddle. Hell, if Joseph Stalin could pick a guitar the way Isbell can, I'd pay to see his show. I did see Isbell live in Boston three years back; his technical virtuosity together with a voice perfectly suited to this kind of music make him one of the best performers at work today.

That gift comes across just as clearly on record. The sound of Reunions is spectacular. Isbell's own skill, the diverse talents of his band (The 400 Unit, including Shires), and the masterful production of Dave Cobb coalesce into a wonder of an album, sonically speaking. The style is fresh and creative too: a new, lively blend of the blues, folk, and rock influences that have informed Isbell's craft for years. This certainly helps to set Reunions apart from the activist albums that have become the norm of late -- none of which, with the exception of a few decent tracks off of The Unraveling, have been particularly good music. [...]

Isbell's gift for not just lyricism but storytelling and character-building is on full display in this album, and it makes for a stark contrast with the genre's other recent offerings. Take, for example, one of the most divisive political topics of the Trump years: the separation of families by various migrant and refugee crises. Drive-by Truckers attempted to tackle the subject in the track "Babies in Cages." It's exactly as subtle and nuanced as the title (which is also its three-word chorus) suggests. It is catharsis aping dialectic and failing in the end to achieve either one.

Isbell, meanwhile, addresses the same hot-button material in "Overseas," with dramatically different results. The opening lines are pure Southern Gothic poetry: "This used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out and the sound of the highway died. There's ashes in the swimming pool." What follows is a poignant monologue on the pain of a person torn by rival loves: for a place, a partner, a parent, a child. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, but it is also intensely relatable for the overwhelming majority of us who have never had to see ashes in our swimming pools.

It is not so much above politics as it is below them. It casts in a distinctly human light what has elsewhere been reduced to rhetoric, dialectic, and argument. There is a balance, too, that helps with the delivery of controversial subjects driven so forcefully by other artists. "Overseas" is just one track among many -- some with political bents, some without. It sits among songs about growing up in a broken American family, about becoming a father (Mercy Isbell is 4 years old now), about getting sober. Reunions is a set of human stories, not of talking points. And Isbell recognizes that the story of a family fractured by an ocean is a human story not much different from his own. Such an understanding produces a spectacular performance that cannot be reduced to mere politics. It may also inspire politics that cannot be reduced to mere performance.

Posted by at May 30, 2020 8:37 AM