Something More Than Free
Early into the title tune to his often elegiac new album Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell struggles with the trials of a dogged workingman's existence. He's grateful for the employment, earnest in its execution but restless enough to understand the fragility of the resulting environment.
"When I get home from work, I call up all my friends," he sings with disarming but deceptive candor, "and we'll go bust up something beautiful we'll have to build again."
The sentiment applies directly to the pages of Isbell's own life, one fortified by the strengths of a new family life and recovery from a crippling alcohol addiction. While Something More Than Free boasts the lightest and dare we say sweetest tone musically of any record he has cut, it's not built on the promise of easy, happy endings.
What you hear musically are songs seasoned with a sense of folkish invitation that could be viewed rightly as Americana bordering on substantive country music (if there is such a thing anymore). But lyrically, much of the album flirts with combustion. The extraordinary 24 Frames effortlessly reflects such a tentative balance. The melody floats along like a 1987-era John Mellencamp song, complete with wife Amanda Shires coloring the music on fiddle in a manner highly similar to what Lisa Germano did for the celebrated Hoosier more than 25 years ago. While the storyline is an affirmation of family and hope, the shadows following it are long and dark, as is the succinct depiction Isbell provides of faith as well as his own state of mind ("like a pipe bomb ready to blow").
The subtle turbulence swerves in numerous directions throughout Something Closer to Free. On Children of Children, a saga of impending teenage parenthood unfolds under a love story fragile enough to implode at any moment ("You and I were almost nothing, we'd pray to God that God was bluffing") and a bittersweet acoustic melody that could have been fashioned by Neil Young 40 years ago. The small-town restlessness of Speed Trap Town is equally unsettling ("a boy's last dream and a man's first loss").
Of particular interest is Palmetto Rose, an ode to South Carolina that obviously predated last month's horrific hate crime killings and the subsequent Confederate flag controversy. It honors certain elements of faith and folklore ("Lord, let me die in the Iodine State") but dismisses more antiquated and inaccurate historical notions, like the lawless native spewing some "(expletive) story about the Civil War."
That sums up the uneasy embrace of Something More Than Free, a record of modest but hardly lasting victories as well as the monumental costs tied to them.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic