Jason Isbell "Something More Than Free"

Jason Isbell creates literate, thought-provoking songs on sobriety and maturity.

Maturity is underrated. The process of obtaining it can be brutal, but in the long run it’s well worth it. And settling down doesn’t mean you’ve settled. It means you’ve made a choice about how you want to live your life. I couldn’t help pondering this as I listened to the opening track of Jason Isbell’s latest album. “If It Takes a Lifetime” captures a young man just past a major turning point in his life, hell bent on growing up and making amends. That theme winds through the eleven superbly written songs that make up Something More Than Freedom.

Jason Isbell’s career began early; he played the Grand Old Opry while still a teen. At twenty-two he joined the progressive southern rock band Drive By Truckers, and later left to start his own band. His 2013 album Southeastern chronicled his fight to get clean and sober. It was a dark, introspective album that established him as a smart, brutally honest songsmith in command of his craft. Something More Than Freedom finds Isbell further down the road, sober, happily married, aware of his surroundings, and taking nothing for granted. “24 Frames” communicates his level of appreciation for stability but also underscores the fragility of sobriety as he sings “And this is how you make yourself worthy of the loving/she gave to you, back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing.” Like that earlier release, the music here is anchored in Americana arrangements, with fiddle and pedal-steel accompanying Isbell’s vocals. Occasionally the pace picks up with electric guitar and drums, but this is mostly an understated affair. 

Although this is a personal and introspective album Isbell is able to look beyond himself, observing how the world reflects both his struggles and triumphs. In “Flagship” a grand hotel long past her glory days is a metaphor for how lives and loves can fade without attention. “How To Forget” tells how Isbell works to move beyond a past love that became a trap. “The Life You Chose” challenges a woman, still caught in the grasp of self-deception and abuse, to see beyond the confines of her predicament. “To a Band That I Loved” is exactly what it sounds like – a love song to a former band. Isbell creates flesh and blood characters and palpable atmosphere to such a degree that Something More Than Freedom ends up feeling like a really great book of short stories with a common theme at its core. Like a good book, I hated reaching the end. Time to hit replay.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)