Something More Than Free
Reviewed by: Jane Roser
From cutting his teeth with the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers and rising above his addiction demons to release one of 2013’s most critically acclaimed albums (Southeastern), singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s name is nowadays uttered in the same breath as iconic lyricists John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen (to name a few). His true genius, though, is in his simple ability to articulate with earnest the story he is attempting to tell.
Isbell’s fifth solo album, produced by Dave Cobb and released via Southeastern Records, is both introspective and reflective. With the exception of the blues-rock song “Palmetto Rose”, Something More Than Free is a quieter album than Southeastern, but no less full of emotion, themes of life, death, suffering and redemption. Isbell is a born storyteller with a penchant for giving his characters such a breath of life; you constantly wonder if his subjects are based on real people and events or the product of a soulful imagination.
Isbell has often said: “I used to explain what my songs meant, but after a while, I realized if I had to explain it, then I wasn’t done writing it,” but in talking about his latest album, Isbell has opened up about the inspirations behind some of his new songs.
The opening track, “If It Takes A Lifetime”, is a classic country-feeling song incorporating slide guitar and a beat which sets the album’s somber tone. This song also has one of my favorite lines: “A man is the product of all the people that he ever loved.” It illustrates where the protagonist has been and where he is going; all of the things that have shaped him into who he is today and his ambitions for who he could be tomorrow: “But I keep on showing up, hell-bent on growing up, if it takes a lifetime.”
The ballad “Children of Children” came about because both Isbell and his wife, musician Amanda Shires, were the product of young parents and he speaks of how much these parents gave up to raise their children. It’s a song of love and devotion, but also of a loss of what could have been. The lyrics are simple, but profound and hit you like a ton of bricks: “You and I were almost nothing. Pray to God the Gods were bluffing. Seventeen ain’t old enough to reason with the pain. How could we expect the two to stay in love, when neither knew the meaning of the difference between sacred and profane?” and “I was riding on my mother’s hip. She was shorter than the corn. And all the years I took from her, just by being born.”
“Speed Trap Town” is one of my favorite tracks and Isbell has admitted it’s his, too. The song begins in a grocery store, then follows the storyteller sneaking a bottle of booze up to the bleachers of a high school game and thinking of how “these 5-A bastards run a shallow cross. It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss,” then shifts to a dying father who “was a tough state trooper ’til a decade back, when that girl that wasn’t Momma caused his heart attack. He didn’t care about us when he was walking around. Just pulling people over in a speed track town.” The entire song seems to echo and stays with you long after the last note is played.
With so many haunting ballads and acoustic guitar-driven songs, you almost fall out of your seat when “Palmetto Rose” shifts into high gear and those electric guitars wail out like a bad-ass muscle car speeding down sizzling asphalt. “Palmetto Rose” is an ode to South Carolina (“the Iodine State”) and really captures what a stroll down Charleston’s King Street is like with vendors selling couples woven “roses” (made from Palmetto tree leaves), telling them that the tradition of giving these to your sweetheart dates back to the Civil War, supposedly to keep them safe from harm: “Palmetto rose in the sidewalk mud, dirty white stem and a big green bud. Catch them coming out of a King Street store, with some bullshit story about the Civil War.”
Something More Than Free is a powerful and breathtaking follow-up to Southeastern and really illustrates why Isbell is such a prolific and seductive poet. He has learned from his past, discovered intense courage and freedom in his present and I’m sure will welcome change, surprises and continued passion for living in his future.