In titling his newest album, “The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell has presented us with a puzzler. The record, the first co-billed to his long-running band, 400 Unit, in five years, has about as much in common with Nashville musical practices as a Godzilla movie. But over the past decade, Isbell has stationed himself as one of the most concise, literate and honestly emotive Southern songwriters of his generation. Does the fact that he works out of a corporate metropolis known for its assembly-line construction of shopworn sentiment suggest that a new age for the Nashville artist is at hand? That’s the head-scratcher.
We’ll leave such expectations to the future, though. For now, let it be known that “The Nashville Sound” is not a country record, although its songs certainly frame a level of country sentiment that most 9-to-5 Nashville songwriters are light-years removed from. Nor is the record any kind of formulaic throwback to yesteryear, when the likes of Billy Sherrill, Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins spearheaded regal Music City sounds all their own.
No, “The Nashville Sound” is more of the same candid, articulate songwriting that began to define Isbell’s songwriting while he was playing with the upstart Southern band Drive-By Truckers.
News releases and even interviews for the record imply a return to a louder, more elemental sound that had been lightened somewhat so Isbell’s two recent solo albums — 2013’s “Southeastern” and 2015’s “Something More Than Free” — could expand into more Americana-friendly waters. That’s not exactly the case here, although “The Nashville Sound” has its high-volume moments, such as when wheezing buzz-saw guitars introduce and expound on the downward generational spiral in “Cumberland Cap,” which sounds less like Drive-By Truckers and more like “Document”-era R.E.M. There also is the electric roll of “Anxiety,” in which power chords bash against a restless heart (and brain) before subsiding like an electric sea chantey.
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Much of “The Nashville Sound,” however, tucks its discontent and uncertainty inside relaxed melodic homesteads that would have sounded right at home on “Southeastern” or “Something More Than Free.”
The opening “Last of My Kind” takes it cue from John Prine, a master at masking inner turmoil in sunny, folk-friendly atmospherics. Also like Prine, Isbell’s wordplay is deceptively simple, with an accessibility as conversational as it is confessional. “Can’t see the stars for the neon lights,” he sings, channeling the mood of a small-town loner lost in the cold, dismissive expanse of metropolitan life.
Similarly, “If We Were Vampires” and “Molotov,” despite their garish titles, reflect cautionary tales of vulnerability expressed through a hushed acoustic arrangement (the former) and a roots-savvy sway that sounds as if it was borrowed from Tom Petty or Los Lobos.
An epic summer listen, “The Nashville Sound” is an appealing new chapter in Isbell’s Americana reign. But is it truly a forecast of things to come in Music City? We can only hope.