Jason Isbell is in the business of applying time tested solutions to contemporary problems. His album Something More Than Free tackles the malaise of the modern age, but it does so in a way that pays tribute to the rich musical history of Americana. It is at once old and yet young, and the gulf that exists between the medium and the message thrills in a deeply satisfying way. It’s Isbell’s finest record to date; an intoxicating triumph that feels both familiar and mysterious.
Isbell, a one time member of the deeply underrated Southern rock group Drive By Truckers has always excelled when it comes to crafting euphoric yet ever so slightly rusted ballads. Even when his music is at its most ecstatic, there is always a beautifully damaged quality to the sound. Children of Children, for example, boasts a gentle guitar riff and Isbell’s soothing tones, but something ever so slightly tragic lurks behind his words and his voice. Hudson Commodore works in the same way. It’s a ballad that coasts along on a subtle river of pain and loss, but it never feels like a song of submission, no matter how many wounds Isbell addresses.
Isbell’s talents as a lyricist have never been more obvious than they are here. 24 Frames, for example, boasts a chorus that questions the very nature of the divine itself. ‘You thought God was an architect, now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.’ It’s a thrilling pair of lines, made all the more powerful when sung in Isbell’s sun-blasted timbre.
Nonetheless, the highlight of the album – and its emotional fulcrum – is the beautiful The Life You Chose. Isbell, firing on all cylinders, nails a melody that carries significant heft, and the hypnotic way he sings the chorus – two parts croon to one part wail – deeply moves.
Mature, intelligent and finely crafted, Something More Than Free pays tribute to the rich history of a genre without ever being slavish. Touching on the themes of loneliness, isolation and what it means to be spiritual in this modern age. It’s the pinnacle of Isbell’s career to date, and a success from beginning to end.