Album Review: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Reunions

You’ll probably be coming to a new Jason Isbell record with particular expectations and so does the man himself. “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?’”. Modesty may not be his strongest virtue then, but he has a point; his previous three records have included his strongest material, with 2015’s Something More Than Free a particular highlight. His fan base is split though; some want more of the driving rockers redolent of his time with Drive-By-Truckers like ‘Cumberland Gap’ or ‘Super 8’, whilst others think these distract from the more earnest songwriting the majority of his material demonstrates. Well, those from this latter camp will be more than satisfied with new album Reunions.

Having said that, there are also some wonderfully subtle musical inflections here that help to define it from previous records. The album opener is a case in point. We clamour over the authenticity of genres like the alt-country/Americana that Isbell has traversed, but ‘What’ve I Done to Help’ possesses a more hip, contemporary approach in its acoustic swagger and sophisticated bass lines, which are then cleaved in two by a bluesy electric guitar towards the song’s conclusion. What immediately follows may be regarded as a tad orthodox then. ‘Dreamsicle’ and ‘Only Children’ possess much more reserved arrangements but listen closely and Isbell’s meticulous writing emerges. These songs are elegiac, full of self-reflection and incredibly evocative as all great Americana should be. The latter is enhanced by gently lilting harmonies from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, lending the lyrics even more gravitas. It may not be reinventing the wheel, but it’s eloquent storytelling at its best and the moment where this record really soars.

“There are a lot of ghosts on this album. Sometimes the songs are about the ghosts of people who aren’t around anymore, but they’re also about who I used to be, the ghost of myself,” Isbell says and ‘Overseas’ is perhaps the most the most overt recognition of this when he sings “This used to be a ghost town / But even the ghosts got out”. There is a sense of regret here which is enhanced by more a more aggressive sonic approach, but this is toned down for the 80s/Dire Straits inspired ‘Running with Our Eyes Closed’, which sounds just a bit too slick with its pulsing synths humming in the background.

After this little blip, the authenticity returns with ‘River’ and there’s a bit of mettle demonstrated by ‘Be Afraid’ thematically and musically before the tender ‘St. Peter’s Autograph’ provides a moment of melancholy gravitas which feels personal whilst still commenting on more global concerns. The personal approach continues on the perky rocker ‘It Gets Easier’ which makes explicit reference to Isbell’s struggles with the bottle and his ensuing sobriety.

The trials and tribulations of parenthood are covered in ‘Letting You Go’ and I guess this is good way to end the record; there’s pervading sense of maturity on this record. It very rarely lets rip like Isbell may have been encouraged to do on earlier records. Instead, this is a songwriter’s record and it is here where it shines.

Iain Fox

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