Up to now, Fiona Apple’s latest has been my fave. It’s a fascinating album. But Jason Isbell steals my heart every time. I’ve only had the album for 24 hours and have listened straight through only once.
Here’s my initial impressions, track-by-track:
1. What Have I Done To Help. When this was released as the first single, I thought it was a little preachy. Then I saw him play it live a few times and it grew on me. Hearing it now, leading off the album, it feels like a great launching pad for the rest of it. And the last 2 minute show how much Isbell’s mastery over the guitar has grown over the past 10 years.
2. Dreamsicle. A solid song, but I forgot it soon after I heard it. Average. Of course, average Jason is better than 90% of the rest of the stuff released each year.
3. Only Children. First tearjerker on the album. Beautiful
4. Overseas. OK, now we’re cooking. The solos on this song are amazing. Musically, this feels like older Isbell—like the kind of thing he’d write when he was with Drive-By Truckers. Lyrically, it’s about immigration—another political tune on the first heavily political Isbell album.
5. and 6. Running With Our Eyes Closed and River. These are J.I. bread-and-butter, and his wife’s with him on River. Americana, love of the land, what it means to be a man, and being tired and unable to sleep.
7. Be Afraid. Another single, another political song. Isbell’s trying on this song, Overseas, and What Have I Done to Help, to write more complex verses—it sometimes feels a little awkward, but it never feels disingenuous or forced. It’s interesting seeing an established artist start to shift.
8. St. Peter’s Autograph. “Sometimes it’s nothing but the way you’re wired, and that’s not your fault. We’re all struggling with the world on fire and the fear we’re taught.” This may be the best song on the album.
9. It Gets Easier. This album is finishing strong. “Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking.” Every recovering alcoholic has had a drunk dream. Every sober addict knows it gets easier but never gets easy. This song gives me chills.
10. Letting You Go. A tender, powerful song about fatherhood ends this album.
With a catalog of tremendous records behind him, it is not damning to say that this is not Jason Isbell’s best album. It’s a great record, and one of the best I’ve heard this year.