For the uninitiated, the opening line of the opening track of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit‘s Weathervanes provides the perfect primer for the singer-songwriter: “Did you ever love a woman with a death wish?” Succinctly summing up the romantic tragedy that runs through Isbell’s 15-year solo catalog, this query sets the tone for his fifth studio album with the 400 Unit.
An album full of good advice, cautionary tales, and 21st-century proverbs, Weathervanes characterizes the slow demise of humanity through a microscopic lens. The best and worst of human nature are seen through barroom conversations and rides to the abortion clinic.
Picking up where 2020’s Reunions left off, Weathervanes reflects on the societal shifts that have occurred since Isbell’s last album dropped in the infancy of the pandemic. Created against the backdrop of a post-COVID society, Weathervanes is ironically one of Isbell’s most extroverted works to date. The pandemic forced Isbell inside and conversely required him to step outside himself for inspiration. To quote a line from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, which has found a new rival in Weathervanes as arguably Isbell’s best album with the 400 Unit (nothing short of a miracle will dethrone Southeastern from atop his solo catalog): “I’m sick of the white man’s blues/I sang enough about myself.”
In the opening of HBO’s new documentary Running With Our Eyes Closed which captures the sessions for Reunions, Isbell says “There’s no more intrinsic value to writing an album as there is writing in your journal when you’re 15 years old.” Nearly 30 years removed from that teenager venting in his journal, Isbell’s songwriting still serves that same purpose of processing his emotions and feelings, only now there’s someone hearing his innermost thoughts.
On Reunions, Isbell was still grappling with his own guilt on songs like “What’ve I Done to Help”. The result, however, felt like Isbell simply trying to overcorrect for years of straying from his moral compass. The feedback loop thrust the audience into a role somewhere between a sympathetic friend and a therapist, as we toed the line between forgiving the man he was and holding him accountable for who he is.
Isbell’s guilt persists on Weathervanes—guilt as a white man, guilt as a recovering addict, guilt as a former womanizer—but rather than writing predominantly about his own internal turmoil, he gives a platform to the people who he actually feels guilty toward. This brings up “White Beretta”, quite possibly the most important song on the album, and there are other contenders (see: school shooting eulogy “Save the World”).
Another topic Isbell broaches in Running With Our Eyes Closed is his proclivity to zero in on one minute detail to tell a larger story. On Weathervanes, Isbell uses “Cast Iron Skillet” to not only tell the story of a family torn apart by bigotry and violence, but also teach listeners how to properly care for antique cookware. Further down the album, those minute details paint a painfully vivid image that puts the listener in that white Chevy Beretta regardless of their gender or whether they’ve exercised their reproductive rights.
“White Beretta” epitomizes Isbell’s outward approach on Weathervanes while remaining grounded in his own perspective. Another case study in guilt, the song confronts how Isbell’s life has diverted from his devout Southern Christian upbringing—a theme that runs throughout his catalog. Here, it’s seen through the decision to have an abortion, “I was raised in the church/I was washed in the blood/And we all were/Saved before we even left home.”
Though the lyrics are filled with a fair amount of “I” statements for a song about abortion written by a man, Isbell balances out his feelings of masculine guilt by recognizing the pressure placed upon the woman who has to “go in that room alone” by a man unwilling to have a child. In the end, the only story Isbell can tell is his own, but he makes sure to lyrically look over at the passenger in the car as she digs her nails into the styrofoam cup.
More Greek tragedies plucked from America’s heartland follow. “King of Oklahoma” melds the downward spiral of addiction with the type of Anytown, USA absentee-father profiles and high school has-beens that have become Isbell’s specialty. His reflective (if sometimes cynical) outlook is shown through his age, though his maturing daughter, Mercy Rose Isbell, gives him both hope and worries for the future.
Mercy Rose plays a prominent role throughout Weathervanes, and nowhere is that as apparent as on “Save the World” and “Miles”. For “Save the World”, Isbell grapples with the everyday terror to which the country has become numb after another mass school shooting. Meanwhile, a nerve-racked Isbell frantically searches for the emergency exit when a balloon pops in a department store while back-to-school shopping. “Can’t we just keep her home?” he asks Amanda Shires, his wife and collaborator, who in turn has to shoulder the responsibility of saving the world when Jason starts to slip.
Fast forward to the Neil Young-esque, seven-minute, album-closing epic, “Miles”, and Isbell is already anticipating the inevitable alienation of his daughter, who is now only seven years old. On a 13-track, 61-minute album mostly comprised of three-to-four-minute alt-country songs, the closing 13-minute sequence of “This Ain’t It” and “Miles” is a jolting and welcome reminder that you are, indeed, listening to a rock band.
In an interview with Steven Hyden, Isbell referred to the album’s three old-school rock n’ rollers that could’ve been lifted from his Drive-By Truckers catalog as “The Old Assignment” suite. As a whole, Weathervanes is Isbell doing what he does best, from brutal self-examinations as devastatingly honest as they are universally relatable to instant Southern rock classics that dial up the volume and his Alabama accent.
As “Miles” drives off into the distance, Isbell howls “In the name of survival we get used to this” atop thundering drums and cracks of overdubbed guitars. At the end of Weathervanes, Isbell is still the same man he was at the end of Reunions and The Nashville Sound. His insecurities, guilt, and grievances remain an indelible part of his worldview and have solidified his style through five albums with the Unit. These records are still therapy sessions for him as he tries to work through his issues, but this latest LP feels like the audience is getting a chance to share, too.
In the final scene of Running With Our Eyes Closed, Isbell sums up this communal trauma dump, even going so far as to declare it the only tale there is to tell. “There’s only one story, they say three in your creative writing classes but there’s only one really, and that’s ‘Will you listen to what my life is like and let’s compare.'”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Weathervanes