Can someone learn from their past without being beleaguered by it? Is change something measured in footsteps, days sober, or something less tangible? These are all questions that Jason Isbell poses, and some of which he answers, on his latest album with The 400 Unit, Reunions.
The Nashville-based, Alabama-native singer-songwriter has traced a long and storied path to get to this, his seventh studio record and fourth alongside The Unit. From cutting his teeth with Drive-By Truckers in the late 2000s, to his departure from that group, hitting rock bottom, and finding salvation on 2013’s Southeastern, Isbell has seen quite a bit. One of the things that made him such an attractive songwriter was his ability to bring listeners in on that arc of rise, fall, and redemption. Now, with the release of Reunions, he begins to tell a new story.
Reunions, featuring 10 new songs, is a grab bag of material from Isbell. Some of it is the tried-and-true storytelling of his turbulent past, while some looks to his bright present of family life and critical acclaim, and still more look to realities completely bereft of Isbell himself. Reunions marks the evolution of an artist uncomplacent with doing what’s easy and restless enough to risk making some mistakes.
The album’s opening track, “What’ve I Done to Help”, finds Isbell still wrestling with his past and the resulting life it has created. While this isn’t the down-and-out Isbell to which audiences are privy, this is a much more cogent singer who acknowledges that all of these long-standing problems won’t go away just because “I kept my head down and showed up to work on time.”
Then, take a song like “Dreamsicle”, which again looks to the past but goes back a little further. From a turbulent childhood filled with cross country moves and frequent goodbyes to friends, “Dreamsicle” lays the emotional groundwork for songs closer to Isbell’s present self. With lines like, “I’ll be 18 four years from now/ with different friends in a different town/ I’ll finally be free,” Isbell offers a tender glimpse into a troubled childhood paramount to his adult formation.
Obviously, the lyrics are the focal point of Isbell’s music, but Reunions sets itself apart musically as well as lyrically. Take a song like “Overseas”, for example, with an opening guitar solo that comes roaring in like it’s a Tom Petty track. Isbell even poked fun at his musical maturation on Twitter the day the album was released, revealing that he wrote and recorded all of Reunions without using a capo. “How’s that for a folksinger and songwriter?” he asked.
Then, on Reunions, there’s a mysterious songwriting element that ties itself to Isbell as well as non-literal characters. “River” focuses on a protagonist who finds his savior in the form of a river. The river tends to Isbell, hears his secrets, “wash my head when I’ve been sinning/wash my knuckles when they bleed.” As our character is saved by the dutiful protection of the river, the final stanza ends with the line, “and last night I woke up screaming at my wife.” This is immediately proceeded by a fiddle run from none other than Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife.
This is not the lone reference to Isbell’s better half, for the song “St. Peter’s Autograph” is about Shires grieving over the passing of friend Neal Casal. Isbell said of the song in a recent New York Times profile, “I was trying to say, ‘It’s all right to grieve the parts of your relationship you might think I’d be upset or jealous about.'”
The role that Isbell and Shires’ domestic life plays in Reunions is unavoidable and unmistakable. It also represents the side of Isbell that looks optimistically toward the future, with a wife and a child, rather than constantly back at his destructive past. While Jason Isbell is not ready to give up that past just yet, Reunions shows the progress of a man who has learned from his mistakes, but is not defined by them.
Stream Reunions by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit now.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — Reunions