'Reunions' Review: These earnest, tender, contemplative stories showcase Jason Isbell as the Master of Americana
Backed by his longtime band the 400 Unit, Jason Isbell shows why he is considered one of the most talented and important songwriters in America today
May 15 marks the release of 'Reunions', the highly anticipated seventh studio album from one of Americana music's modern storytelling greats, Jason Isbell, accompanied by his backing band, the 400 Unit. At 41, Jason Isbell is already revered in the alternative country landscape as much as his mentor and friend, the late great John Prine was in his prime.
The Bob Dylan lyric tattooed on his arm is a testament to his dedication to being as true to his storytelling craft as he can possibly be, even if it means confronting unwieldy truths about the world we live in or turning back the hands of time as he reminisces on his formative years and the half a decade he spent lost in a quagmire of his own making.
As a member of the popular Southern rock outfit, Drive-By Truckers from 2001 to 2007, Jason Isbell was an extraordinarily gifted young songwriter, pouring his eloquent heart and soul into many of their enduring tunes. But he also lived the life of a hard-drinking, hell-raising firestarter, eventually leading to his ejection from the band and watching his marriage to Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker go up in flames. But Isbell clawed his way back after hitting rock bottom, using his booze-filled years as the fuel for his unquenchable creative fires.
Thanks to his loving new wife and 400 Unit bandmate, the violinist Amanda Shires, Jason gave up drinking for good and churned out one increasingly better album after another. His last two albums with the 400 Unit, 'Something More Than Free' (2015), and 'The Nashville Sound' (2017) both debuted at No 1 on the Billboard Rock and Country charts, earning him four Grammys in the process.
So when it came to making 'Reunions', Jason was understandably feeling the pressure of living up to the weighty expectations thrust on him by adoring fans and critics. The stress even led to numerous bouts of bickering & marital strife with his wife Amanda. Thankfully, the power couple of Americana began to see eye-to-eye again, and the resulting record is one of his finest efforts yet, charged with the exuberant power and polish of '80s rock radio, as masterminded by Isbell's longtime producer, Dave Cobb.
“Success is a very nice problem to have but I think ‘how do I get through it and not lose what made me good in the first place'?” mulled Isbell. “A lot of these songs and the overall concept of this album is how do I progress as an artist and a human being and still keep that same hunger that I had... when I wasn’t quite so far along in either respect.”
Isbell’s solution to these questions was to go back in time, emerging with a collection of 10 sincere, moving songs that delve into relationships with lovers, friends, children, parents, and the narrator himself. The end result showcases a talented artiste at the height of his powers and a sublime backing band ready to nimbly rise to every musical occasion.
“Jason has become one of the best writers in the country. And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan,” said the music icon David Crosby, who sings harmonies on 'What’ve I Done to Help?' the soul-searching alt-country opener on 'Reunions'. “His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.” In the track, Isbell explores mistakes from his past while picking apart what he could have done, and can still do differently. It's an open, honest look in the mirror that sets the tone for the nine tracks that follow.
'Dreamsicle' is a poignant and bittersweet track written from the point of view of a child growing up in a broken home. With his delicate and deliberately-chosen imagery, Isbell manages to capture a tangible sense of loss and also the fleeting innocence of childhood. “Poison oak to poison ivy / Dirty jokes that blew right by me,” he sings, while casting a forlorn eye on his parents. “Mama curling up beside me / Crying to herself / Why can't Daddy just come home? / Forget whatever he did wrong / He's in a hotel all alone / And we need him.”
The haunting and gorgeous album standout 'Only Children' reminisces about a deceased school friend who is mourned over plucked acoustic guitars, emotive harmonies, gently coaxed violin strings, brushed drums, and floating synths. "Remember when we used to meet? / At the bottom of Mobile street / And do what the broken people do? / Are you still taking notes? / Hydrocodone in your backpack / Maybe these words will hold the beast back / Will you read me what you wrote? / The one I said you stole from Dylan / Overencouraged, only children."
Meanwhile 'Overseas', is a loud, squalling guitar blues rocker that explores the distance and separation between a couple, both emotional and physical. “Our love won’t change / Our love won’t change a thing,” declares Isbell, while running through the manifold challenges that face the couple while one of them is helplessly trapped overseas. Considering the current coronavirus climate, it's certainly a lament that will hit close to home for millions of stranded people worldwide.
'Running With Our Eyes Closed' is another bluesy ballad about a couple in love, but much gentler and tender in nature this time around. "Took forever to get you to trust me," Isbell admits, while revealing that the couple has had their share of ups and downs, but they're still stumbling forward together, with eyes closed and open hearts. "We can never go back and be strangers / All our secrets are mixed and distilled / But you taught me to temper my anger / And you've learned it's all right to be still."
The gorgeous piano-led 'River' unfolds with serenity and gently unfolding wisdom about the transforming power of life, while accepting that everything has its perfect time, place, and function - all we can do right now is enjoy the present moment and flow through life like a river. "The river is my savior / 'Cause she used to be a cloud / She's happy just to lay there / When she used to be so proud / And even when she dries up / A thousand years from now / I'll lay myself beside her / And call her name out loud."
The incendiary 'Be Afraid' is a rousing call to arms, with Isbell asking everyone around him, including himself, to stand up and be accountable in this country. "Be afraid / Be very afraid / Do it anyway," he emphatically declares. There's plenty of steely resolve in his charged voice as he sings - “We don't take requests / We won't shut up and sing / Tell the truth enough / You'll find it rhymes with everything / If your words add up to nothing / Then you’re making a choice / To sing a cover / When we need a battle cry.”
'St Peter’s Autograph' is a tender, heartfelt acoustic song that Isbell wrote while his wife grieved the death of her close friend, the musician Neal Casal, who committed suicide last year. "What do I do to make you smile? / Been hurting for a while / What do I do to make you laugh? / Get St. Peter's autograph / There's no shelter from the rain / I can't comprehend your pain / I've got arms and I've got ears / I will always be right here."
The vivid and autobiographical rocker 'It Gets Easier' openly talking about the ongoing challenges of Isbell trying to stay sober for eight years. “It gets easier / But it never gets easy / I can say it’s all worth it / But you won’t believe me," sings Isbell with more than a touch of wryness in his voice.
The stirring and touching album closer 'Letting You Go' speaks from the perspective of a proud and sentimental parent, no doubt addressing how Isbell feels about fathering his four-year-old daughter Mercy. "Being your daddy comes natural / The roses just know how to grow / It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going / The hard part is letting you go."
For what its worth, this a record that is a magical mix of unvarnished truth and dreamy beauty, managing to be both seamless and timeless. They’re made up of heartfelt, autobiographical stories from Jason's past and rootsy Americana yarns that detail the human condition, running the gamut from tender acoustic ballads to rockier protest anthems. “My goal is not to sell millions of records,” Isbell admits. "The goal is just to be honest and make music that I enjoy, music that’s reflective of the person that I am.” As grateful listeners, we can only hope he continues to make many more records of the same caliber and intensity as 'Reunions'.