Preview The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit.
The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Truth is a tricky thing. It can be hard to identify, and when you do, confronting it isn’t always pleasant. The Nashville Sound, the eagerly awaited new album by Jason Isbell, offers plenty of truth in its penetrating lyrics and righteous music, and it’s a pleasure from beginning to end.
Isbell has made a name for himself as a masterful singer and songwriter, and this latest recording offers a wealth of what has made him famous. The music features a variety of arrangements and musical styles—finger-picked acoustic guitar, soft country rock, jangle pop polish and harder-edged rock with buzzing guitars, booming drums and squalls of feedback. As the title suggests, the album is the sound of Music City today, if you venture beyond the honky-tonks that line Broadway in downtown Nashville.
Each song gets the treatment it deserves. And the lyrics cover a lot of territory, including a lament for a fading way of life (“Last of My Kind”), the joy and sadness of enduring love (“If We Were Vampires”) and the positive influence of a smart and loving wife (“Molotov”). One of the sweetest songs on the album, at least to these ears, is “Something to Love,” which could be a father addressing a newborn daughter, whispering hope that she finds a special interest and love to sustain her through life.
“White Man’s World” is also written from the point of view of a parent, and it’s a standout. (Isbell’s record label clearly thinks it’s worthy of special attention, too, having released it online in advance of the official record release date.) With a minor key blues progression for background, the singer muses on the unfairness that his daughter will encounter in a world rife with gender and racial bias. The outrage of the lyric is matched by a wailing call-and-response duet between fiddle and slide guitar.
It should be said that Isbell’s entire band plays superbly throughout the album. One member needs to be mentioned: his wife, Amanda Shires. Her fiddle weaves in and out of a number of the songs, providing a counterpoint to the melody or emphasizing a moment. Not surprisingly, her vocals harmonize tightly and beautifully with Isbell, too. It is especially affecting when she apparently figures prominently in the lyrics, such as on “If We Were Vampires.”
It’s hard to listen to Isbell’s album and not hear every song as autobiographical. “Anxiety,” for example, seems to describe the internal monologue of an incredibly bright and thoughtful individual who finds the world wanting in many ways. Whatever the case, these songs all reflect the empathy and sensitivity that make Isbell an outstanding songwriter; they ring with authenticity.
Reflecting on the album brought to mind “Country When It Rocks” by Todd Snider (who officiated at the wedding of Isbell and Shires), in which the singer praises “the kind of song that kept you glued to it because you knew that it was true.”
Every song on The Nashville Sound meets that definition. The songs have twang aplenty and moments of turned-up-to-11 rocking, but mostly, they speak truth about the world and the songwriter’s experience of it. Once you hear them, you will have a hard time getting them out of your head.