By Nick Nelson – Alexandria, VA
Country music has long been considered the sound of the every-man. Jason Isbell knows this – he’s been one of the genre’s most accessible lyricists, never sacrificing the no-bullshit attitude he is known for as a previous member of the alt-country outfit Drive-by Truckers.
Overall, Isbell’s new 2015 effort, “Something More Than Free,” doesn’t tread any new ground. The dirt under his proverbial boots will feel familiar though, and his gruff baritone comes with traces of whiskey and sadness, but ultimately he settles on a redemptive and, most importantly, relatable tone. While this country may be for everyone, it’s especially for those who can’t hide their scars or no longer want to try.
What makes this album so strong though, is the lyrics aren’t only for straight or cisgender people, or just for men or women. So much of the country genre – and those singing them – focus on traditional gender roles. Trace Adkins and Julie Roberts, for example, have recorded versions of “Break Down Here,” your standard schlocky ode to breakups, each changing the gender of the offending spouse. Even Miranda Lambert, praised for being a beacon of rebellion against Nashville’s gender politics, writes largely the same message: I’ve been wronged in a relationship and now I need revenge.
Straying from such limitation is ultimately where “Something” finds its voice: Jason is the late night truck stop, just as much as he is the patrons or the road it stands on, and the gender of the singer or the character does not matter.
The album’s lyrics cultivate a sense of surrender without hinting at self-sacrifice. The opening track, “If It Takes a Lifetime,” tells of a man working his life away at a dead-end job, a life previously spent hedonistically on the road. It takes a simultaneously wistful (“Well I thought the highway loved me, but she beat me like a drum”) and defiant attitude (“I can’t recall a day when I didn’t wanna disappear”), but with the knowledge that in the end it’ll all be okay (“If I loved you once my friend, oh, I can do it all again, if it takes a lifetime”).
And so the stage is set for 11 songs that at once evoke comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, John Prine and Willie Nelson, while staying uniquely Isbell. True, there is nothing new here. Some of the topics even seem cliché, but they’re real. At the end of the day, this is a man who has bled for his family, his ethics and himself.
This is loss, grief, acceptance and hope within themes beyond relationships. These are words we have all whispered on balconies in the early morning, or sighed to loved ones in cross-country phone calls. They’re experiences we have all lived through, and scars we have all shown. This is a road he’s traveled many times, and one which we can find familiar, even if we don’t want to admit it. It’s a redemption road. And for once, in a genre of music known for sadness, we get to enjoy how this story ends.