Seeing as how we’re all likely a bit frazzled by the craziness that’s been brought about in our lives by the pandemic, we’ll disperse with any suspense and unpredictability: Reunions, Jason Isbell’s latest album, is nothing short of masterful. For those who’ve kept up with the Alabama native’s career, especially over the past decade, an Isbell record earning such a majestic rave is as shocking as seeing yet another bachelorette party hootin’ and hollerin’ on one of those party bikes on Broadway.
Reunions is more polished than Isbell’s previous records, and it provides a satisfying new layer to his catalog. Nowhere is that production sheen more apparent than on the soulful album-opening “What’ve I Done To Help,” a groove-intensive track featuring jazzy bass, swelling Memphis-style strings, and a funky, almost R&B type bounce that recalls soul-stirrer Michael Kiwanuka’s most engaging work.
To be clear, Isbell’s songs and records are undeniably his. He’s one of the rare artists whose songs are instantly recognizable within the first few notes. But on this record, more than ever before, many songs blend styles and signatures easily identified with other artists in order to craft expert concoctions.
The hard-charging, lyrically blistering “Be Afraid” and mid-tempo rocker “Overseas”, a song Isbell performed live in concert last summer, are fully-amplified tastes of what a maestro can create when melding the steady drive of Bob Seger and the dreamlike, chiming guitar of the War on Drugs. And speaking of the Adam Granduciel-led rock band, the slow, smoky “Running With Our Eyes Closed” proffers a world where War on Drugs and Dire Straits form an all-too sensible and enticing of a combination.
Noticing a few similarities in a couple of Isbell’s songs and other artists is little more than a fun music-geek exercise. The most impactful wallops here are the songs only he can pull off. The haunting “Only Children” offers an elegant contrast of rough and smooth with nimble electric guitar wafting above the shuffling acoustic counterpart. On an album as sonically forward moving as Reunions, “Only Children” would’ve felt comfortably at home on Isbell’s stunning 2013 Southeastern.
Due to his excellence as a storyteller, fans, understandably, often confuse the songs Isbell employs fictional characters with the ones seemingly spilled from his personal diary. Because of his often open-book style interviews, candid social media presence and, yes, vivid songwriting, it’s easy for fans to feel more intimately close with his everyday feelings and struggles. A couple of breathtaking songs on the new record seem to set a new bar for Isbell’s personal vulnerability.
In “It Gets Easier,” over low fiddle and raw electric strums, Isbell sings “Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking, Same dream I have about twice a week.” Beginning the song that way, it felt as if he couldn’t stand to hold the secret in any longer, a direct urgency also apparent in “Anxiety,” a scorching mental-health anthem from 2017’s The Nashville Sound. In “St. Peter’s Autograph,” the surface-level serenity provided by the gorgeous guitar and Isbell’s genteel vocal delivery contrasts with the pleading, searching lyrics aiming to redirect a troubled marriage onto the proper path.
Although the topic isn’t as outwardly lovey-dovey, this heart-stopping tune feels like the latest chapter in the love story between he and his wife and fellow artist Amanda Shires, with older tunes “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” making up the previous chapters.
In 2015, Isbell closed out his Something More Than Free LP with “To a Band That I Loved”, a heartfelt tribute to Texas indie rock outfit Centro-matic following the group’s breakup. In 2020, he wraps up his record with “Letting You Go,” which surely must be the most powerful “dad song” in recent memory. Over a sparse, outlaw country guitar twang, Mercy Rose’s father sings “Being your daddy comes natural / roses just know how to grow / it’s easy to see you’ll get you’re going / the hard part is letting you go.”
Isbell, just as many of history’s greatest songwriters, elevates the everyday into the eternal. It’s not hyperbole to state that he can do what so many others do, while there may not be any out there who can do what he’s doing now so spectacularly.