JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS
Today we’re looking at the new album from Jason Isbell. And it’s good, because it’s by Jason Isbell. That’s it. That’s the review… Okay, okay, I’ll give you a little more now that I’ve so clearly telegraphed my biases towards this particular artist. Alternative country was a major player in the redemption of country music in my mind. The way the genre balances elements of heartland rock, Americana, and folk to create its own brand of country that’s undeniably authentic showed me that the genre was not doomed to a future of tropes and cliches. One of the best purveyors of alternative country in recent years has been Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.
Reunions is Isbell’s seventh album, and the fourth with The 400 Unit. The songs do feature quite a few reunions, but not the kind you might expect. In an interview on Austin City Limits Live, Isbell said that, “there are a lot of ghosts on this album.” These are literally the ghosts of people who have passed and figuratively the ghosts of life in the past. These show up in a big way within the first few tracks. “Dreamsicle” tells the story of a troubled childhood marked by arguing parents and constant moves to new places, and all the narrator could do was do his best to enjoy his childhood while he was still too naive to understand how bad things were.
A more literal ghost appears on “Only Children,” a song that recounts a friend who was an exceptional songwriter, but also struggled with addictions that ended up killing him. Death returns later in the album on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” a song that Isbell wrote for his wife, Amanda Shires, after a dear friend of hers died by suicide. In it he expresses how he understands how she loved him and that he’s there to console her while she grieves. The complicated nature of love is covered on songs “Overseas” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed.” The first describing feelings for someone the narrator just cannot be with and the latter describing the way lovers dive in blindly.
The lyrics on this album are just so good. They’re always one of the greatest strengths of a Jason Isbell record. There are more songs that tell stories of desperate men, doing what’s right when it’s the hard thing to do, and being a father. I could go on gushing track by track, but there is more to this album. Great lyrics can only get you so far if the instrumentals don’t serve them well.
Fortunately, The 400 Unit deliver on this front. Reunions stays pretty firmly within the bounds of Americana and alt country even when the songs get a little louder and more rock oriented. But they also know when to pull back for quieter moments. Every track sounds as sad, hopeful, scared, or angry as the stories the lyrics tell. My only real complaint is that not every track is incredibly memorable in a way where it sticks with you, though several are. That, and the fact that the album opener, “What’ve I Done To Help” is a little repetitive and long.
Overall, this is a strong offering from Jason Isbell and company, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. He’s proven himself to be an incredible songwriter over and over, and The 400 Unit provide the perfect backing for his stories. It’s not without it’s faults, and I wish more songs had stronger staying power. I don’t know if Reunions will give us another “If We Were Vampires,” but it’s a great album nonetheless.