On Jason Isbell's 'Reunions,' A Satisfied Mind Reckons With A Rocky Past
Years from now, when it all blurs together, Jason Isbell should easily remember the launch of Reunions, his seventh album as a band leader. The songwriter and his wife Amanda Shires walked out on the stage of the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville on release night last Friday, waving to virtually no one in the cavernous room yet virtually to several thousand people around the world watching online.
The venue, adapting to the Covid-19 strangeness, projected an ever-changing selection of audience members from their webcams on to screens in the dark hall, putting Isbell in a kind of reverse panopticon for his livestreamed release show. It was a thoughtful gesture, in a time of live music on one-way cameras, to give the artist at least a glimpse of the fans excitedly watching from home.
Isbell’s fans would hang upside down or teleport with unproven technology to see him perform music old or new, and Isbell works as hard as anyone to meet them halfway. He’s a rare breed, an Americana folk rocker who could sell out Bridgestone Arena but who instead books multi-show runs at the Ryman Auditorium, allowing his 400 Unit band and his audience to circle up in close communion. He’s done this, according to a recent GQ profile, 27 times over seven years.
Highlights from those historic sets are captured as well as one can with ones and zeroes on 2018’s Live From The Ryman, which presents some of the most incisive and timeless songs from the career so far. The searing “Elephant” confronts the pain and ripple effects of cancer without tripping over sentiment or cliches. We get shockingly intimate looks inside his recovery from addiction and the marriage he’s leaned on in classics “Cover Me Up” and “24 Frames.” His righteous indignation at social structures and history’s overhangs blazes in “White Man’s World.” And on it goes, a body of work securely in the legacy that ties Bruce Springsteen to Hank Williams to Walt Whitman, the heart of an America that sings with language somehow plainspoken and heightened at the same time. The 41-year-old Alabama native has earned his reputation as the foremost songwriter of his generation. And for folk music fans, so accustomed to success being measured on different scales than the mainstream music business, it’s validating and important to have a bona fide rock star we can call our own.
Isbell’s new material has a spectral quality that feels of a piece with the disembodied faces staring back at the Brooklyn Bowl stage. “There are a lot of ghosts on this album,” Isbell said in the press blast heralding the arrival of Reunions. “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.” For a fellow who speaks with disarming candor in interviews about his marriage to Shires, his years of addiction and his recovery therefrom, he has scarcely visited his Alabama roots and pre-recovery life in song. So now we get to go to some fascinating places in his mind, set to the most layered and seductive instrumentation he’s put on a record so far.
We head way back in “Dreamsicle” to be with a kid just old enough to sense but not understand the alienating forces radiating from his parents’ failed marriage. A composite of his own and his wife’s similar backgrounds, the song puts us in the kid’s awkward new shoes, tasting the ice cream treat offered as a sorry compensation for lost permanence. More abstracted memoir follows in the next track “Only Children,” which Isbell has said was the first song written for the album. The setting is Florence, AL, home to the Muscle Shoals recording scene that mentored the artist as a young man. The situation is based on naive early steps on the road to addiction and memories of a childhood friend who’s no longer with us.
Isbell told Variety that he listened to a lot of Dire Straits and Pink Floyd while making Reunions, and in truth, Dave Cobb’s productions of the 400 Unit did need a sonic jolt. Power chords and heartland drumming have the advantage of making the lyric the main event, but I was glad to hear more to get my ears involved than on past albums. The shining Mark Knopfler guitar tone and spacious arrangement on the verses of “Running With Our Eyes Closed” is a fine example of the music meeting the message. It cruises lightly as Isbell lands some stunning lines about marriage, including “We can never go back and be strangers/All our secrets are mixed and distilled/But you've taught me to temper my anger/And you've learned it's alright to be still.” So much is packed in there, the flaws, the mutual growth, the fulfillment.
A similar airiness helps “St. Peter’s Autograph” land with a power that’s disproportionate to its volume. The subject is the death of musician Neal Casal and an unfamiliar tension between the color of the writer’s own grief and that of his wife, to whom Casal was very close. Isbell says it’s informed by his life experience with men who were possessive to a fault in their relationships. The song holds male insecurity and envy up to the light with rare patience and insight.
The album is bookended with songs of commitment. In “What Have I Done To Help” the artist rallies himself to serve something bigger, now that he’s done the hard work of helping himself. And “Letting You Go” is a more conventional ode to his daughter, evoking her birth and his wonder at fatherhood, while looking ahead warily to her inevitable independence. Songs like that show even at his most straightforward, amid a southern rock and roll thrum, Jason Isbell can turn our head with a turn of phrase. And when he really goes for it, asking a song to be all it can be with word-bending and world-building, he evokes a communal sense of wonder and value. Americana is wildly eclectic nowadays, with room for many tastes and sensibilities, but Isbell’s place of preeminence in the field is reassuringly unifying.
Watch Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires present the material from Reunions at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville on Friday, May 15.