Something More Than Free
**** out of *****2013's Southeastern he didn't only redefine his career, he straightened out his life, got married (for the second time) and sober (for the first time). The passion, heartfelt emotion and raw yearning all came clearly through the stripped down songs on Southeastern and Something More Than Free could never live up to it; but when the dust settles it has tried it's damnedest.
The majority of the album has an easy Americana/country feel even if the lyrics are dealing with weighty topics. Keeping producer David Cobb in tow was a wise move and Isbell's backing band, the 400 Unit, was brought in to add dynamics. The added instrumentation can dilute the intimacy of Isbell's words and singing, oddly at times the production falls flat with the music; for future records a better balance between band and front-man will only elevate the whole product.
As for the songs themselves opener's "If It Takes a Lifetime" and "24 Frames" could be weepers of the highest degree dealing with broken romances and lives in tatters but the band helps smooth things along so a listener never needs to dig down or think to hard on their/the songs characters problems.
Other numbers like "Flagship" and "The Life You Chose" also roll by easily without leaving too much of an impression other then solid, if unspectacular Americana songs with weighty words/topics and smooth sounds. "Children of Children" raises the emotional stakes by pairing electric rising guitars with Amada Shires exploring fiddle while "How To Forget" actually switches up to a light airy feeling which doesn't match the lyrical matter being sung about and it is possible that listeners could be disappointed at that point. The trick here is the disk is back loaded, saving it's best tracks for its second half.
It really kicks you in the teeth with the title track. The loneliness and straight ahead drive is encapsulating, dealing with the struggles of day to day living, spirituality, emptiness and politics all in poetic fashion over strings, a moving rhythm section and flowing guitars. A title track for the ages and one that the likes of Bruce Springsteen should look to for inspiration. While Isbell has been compared to lots of singers (Rick Danko) and songwriters (Steve Earle) it is The Boss that Isbell seems to be working closest to, swapping out the New Jersey Shore rock shimmy for Alabama Pines Americana/country everyman.
That vibe continues in "Speed Trap Town" which takes the small town living dynamic to its stark degree shining via depressing clarity and lonesome guitar lines. "Hudson Commodore" tells family stories from the escapism of the road while "Palmetto Rose" brings on some boogie-woogie southern swing to the mix. The closing track is a ode to one of his favorite bands Centro-Matic but the history isn't as important as the feeling of thanks that emanates from it, also the piano and feedback driven guitars help out immensely.
While not possessing the same personal/emotional impact of Southeastern, or the musical power of his Drive-By Trucker songs, Something More Than Free still does the job of cementing Isbell as one of the best singer/songwriters active today. The mini movies and brokenhearted tales that incorporate his world are vibrant, alive, desperate and yearning all while he personally remains in great emotional shape.
Love Jason, thought the last album was one of the best of the year, happy to have recently caught him live.
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