Something more Than Free is Jason Isbell"s sparest record yet, and feels noncommittal: not fairly folk, not quite country, absolutely not rock. Isbell"s text keeps thorny issues at arm"s length, and Free sounds nondescript and—worse—placeless together a result.

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Jason Isbell"s fifth studio album opens with a familiar face. The narrator of the cheery "If it Takes a Lifetime" is a guy settling under after years on the road, adjusting to an north house and a dead-end job while acclimating come the lowered expectations the a lonely life. The song"s chief problem is summed up by the line, "I keep my soul high, uncover happiness by and also by." There"s much more than a little bit the Isbell the touring musician and recovering alcoholic in the narrator, not just in the lines around the road ("I assumed the highway love me but she beat me choose a drum") but also in the recommendations to not drinking ("I don"t save liquor here, never cared for wine or beer"). "If it Takes a Lifetime" sounds prefer Isbell playing a video game of What If: What if his solo career hadn"t taken off after the departed the Drive-By Truckers eight years ago? What if that hadn"t emerged as one of the most famous voices in the thriving Americana movement? What if he had actually just resolved down in one of the tiny towns the depicts for this reason vividly in his lyrics?

It"s a well song, sporting a spare, defiantly upbeat arrangement and also a melody the celebrates quite than laments the narrator"s situation. Through an eye for telling details that accrue into certain settings and characters, Isbell is one of couple of songwriters today who can turn a line like, "Working because that the ar keeps me pissin" clear" into a solid earworm. And yet, i can"t quite shake the emotion that I"ve heard "If it Takes a Lifetime" before, in some iteration or another, in ~ some suggest in Isbell"s catalog. 5 albums plus 2 live releases into a solo career, any kind of songwriter will uncover his themes solidifying, his sound coalescing right into something recognizable and, if he"s lucky, something completely distinctive.

"If the Takes a Lifetime", however, introduces an album that contains too few surprises. These are, as usual, not story-songs so lot as they are character sketches: Very tiny happens beyond a character showing on previous mistakes and also present circumstances, which means the rigid arc—the big decisions, the major conflicts; in short, the action—has to be consigned to the remote past. Together a result, Isbell"s narrators tend to be surprisingly passive, observing the civilization without doing an extremely much. "I don"t think top top why I"m below or where it hurts," note the key character on the title track, who stays in his very own memory an ext than in the current world.

"Children that Children", i beg your pardon serves together the album"s centerpiece, wrestles through some tangled concerns in a family with "five full generations living," but Isbell seems an ext interested in the romance of sepia-tone photographs than in the truth of a great-great-grandparent. It"s an odd hull the a song, who weirdest element is the means it borrow the mrs hardship the childbirth just to bolster male drama: "All the years ns took indigenous her simply by gift born," the narrator says of his teenage mother, even though he"s really talking around the load of his own guilt. The plan is spare and also languorous, through Derry DeBorja"s Mellotron adding a windswept quality to the music. Isbell and also producer Dave Cobb put that tool to fine usage on Southeastern, whereby it played choose a jerry-rigged orchestra and conveyed an tremendous sense the isolation. ~ above "Children", however, the ersatz strings generate just ersatz drama.

In general, the music does small to distinguish these personalities or enliven the lyrics. Cobb is one the the many adventurous producers in Nashville, and together they have made Isbell"s sparest document yet, with an austere palette dominated by acoustic guitar. The results are noncommittal: not quite folk, not fairly country, certainly not rock. Also Amanda Shires" fiddle sounds stripped of the eccentricities she frequently brings. It"s a shame, together Isbell"s house state boasts a lively and also surprisingly varied music scene, v bands like Alabama Shakes, St. Paul & the damaged Bones, and also Wray slyly subverting and also therefore rejuvenating southern conventions. Isbell is obviously acquainted with the music the the region, however Something more Than Free sounds nondescript and—worse—placeless.

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In 2015, Southern identity occupies the facility of a number of heated debates, and couple of artists are far better poised to discuss its complexities than Isbell. However race has never been a compelling concern for him, and also while course underlies every one of his songs, the long ago stopped writing about it with lot acuity. His strategy has come to be internalized, rooted in a self-consciously literary first-person perspective. And while he"s created solid work within these parameters, ns still lament the absence of urgency to connect with anything as well far past the reach of his customary stand-ins. Isbell as soon as again reflects the people through acquainted eyes, however here it simply feels favor we"ve seen it every before.