Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Album Review: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Reunions

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Reunions
**** out of *****

The newest release from Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit is a strong collection of Americana and builds upon the success of his recent efforts. Reunions continues Isbell and company's ride as some of the most important artists on the scene today with Isbell writing impressive songs regarding sobriety, parenthood and dealing (or not dealing) with societal  change.

One of the first noticeable things is an uptick in production and sounds as Isbell's longtime producer David Cobb (known mostly for stripped down country/folk) has focused on each instrument with great care. Repetitive questioning opener "What Have I Done To Help" has deep bass string vibrations, acoustic/electric strumming/wailing and electro-keys warbling around as the track uses it's title phrase over and over again, questioning life and choices made. On The Nashville Sound, the 400 Unit (Derry Deborja – keyboard, Therevox Chad Gamble – drums Jimbo Hart – bass Amanda Shires – harmony vocals, fiddle Sadler Vaden – electric guitar) seemed to be finding their way back to sharing the headline with Isbell, here they are much more integrated.

"Dreamsicle" amasses the small town woes Isbell is so adept at capturing with dramatic piano as the song itself could inspire an off Broadway play while "Only Children" deals with the song writing process itself with artistic struggles taking center stage.

The middle of Reunions look to slightly update Isbell's style as production, playing and tone successfully shifts towards a War on Drugs inspired, mid 80's radio vibe. "Overseas" works with finding your self because no one else can, direct imagery and ripping guitar while "Running With Our Eyes Closed" uses a late night sense of cool to the troubling times described.

More familiar to fans is the poetically Southern tune describing the "River" as pianos flow like currents through the majestic offering while Isbell has ends the record with two tracks that could be theme songs in their complete perfect execution. "It Gets Easier" addresses the difficulty of staying sober directly and with a clear sense of the daily process while "Letting You Go" is a dynamite weeper for the parents (especially new Dad's) and will be featured in Father-Daughter dances during weddings for decades to come.

Most songwriters would kill for one song half this good, Isbell gives two (plus a slew of other damn good ones) and Reunions is a fantastic record, showing the best of the Southern Springsteen as he progresses with his dynamite talent....however there is one thing that sticks out and has since "Be Afraid" was released early.

Perhaps it is just these extra hyper changing times, but even before the world wide protests inspired by the murder of George Floyd, "Be Afraid" comes off as a hollow protest songs, arguing against hollow protest songs themselves.It is a neat lyrical trick and has a good groove...it only feels important and on 99% of artists albums that would be fine, but Isbell has the rare gift that makes ever song matter, and this one lyrically is a missed opportunity.

The more allusive "St. Peter's Autograph" is cryptic and haunting with it's illusions to ghosts, lost loves and not measuring up to memories with historical lynching implications embedded as well. Songs can naturally represent and be about anything all at once and Isbell is one of the best living writers in this art form, Reunions modernizes his sound at times, continues to do succeed with what he does best and leaves some room for improvement.

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