Reunions: Jason Isbell’s Ghosts
I’ll be the first to admit it right here; I’m not a dispassionate Jason Isbell reviewer. I first saw him at a festival at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park in 2014. I keep up pretty well with current music, but he was unknown to me. He was playing right before the Punch Brothers. I asked some people I was with who he was, and they said I probably wouldn’t like him, so I wandered up to the food trucks to get a lobster roll. I came back, and he was playing an acoustic guitar with his band in the background; the song he was singing was called “Live Oak.” I started listening. It was a dark, mysterious song with an unexpected ending, and no resolution. I noticed that people were singing along with his songs, which always means something to me. The rest of his set was a blur. I remember a song about his dad, and how the audience knew every word. I bought his most recent album, Southeastern. There was a “adult” warning label on it which I found curious, but I understood why when I played the song “Elephant.” After listening to that song, I literally sat in my chair for five minutes pretty much speechless, and that began my Isbell obsession. Since then I’ve seen him around ten times or so, at the Ryman, in Orlando, St. Augustine, the 30A Festival… I’ve seen him a lot. Since then he’s won four Grammys, written songs for A Star Is Born and is a success by any measure. And I’m convinced he is the best songwriter of his generation. By far.
Most people are aware of his history. Jason has released seven albums. His first three came after he was unceremoniously booted out of the Drive-By Truckers because of his alcoholism; he was almost unable to perform at times. He formed his own band and recorded a few albums with some great songs (“Alabama Pines” won Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Awards), but he never stopped drinking. Finally, his future wife Amanda Shires, an excellent writer and player herself, gave him the ultimatum: either give her up or change. He entered rehab eight years ago. While in rehab and shortly after, he wrote the songs on Southeastern, which I still consider his best album, and in fact the best album released in twenty years or so. It’s an album about introspection, repair, and regrets, and it is a true masterpiece.
But every album he has ever recorded has songs that deserve acclaim. Something More Than Free, his follow-up to Southeastern, showed him moving away from the angst but keeping his attention to the finest details of life. The Nashville Sound, his last effort, was more openly political and a statement about his new fatherhood and his concerns and love for his daughter. It also included the Grammy-winning “If We Were Vampires,” one of the most perfect love songs ever written. All of his albums mix his acoustic character studies with some hard-core rock. For all his empathy and pathos in many of his slower songs, he loves playing rock and roll, and he’s a great slide and electric player. His covers of the Allmans, Tom Petty, and his own uptempo songs are masterful as well, and usually close out his live shows.
His recent interviews about Reunions have been revealing. When interviewed by Trevor Noah of the Daily Show, he talked about how for many years he avoided the person he used to be (a line from “Live Oak”) out of fear that that person might come back. As he says, he treated that person with judgment and disdain. “It took me six or seven years before I felt like I could be friends with that guy again, so I could feel safe… because I didn’t want to forgive myself too quickly.” Finally, in the last year or so he decided to revisit that person and his music from that time period. “Going and sitting down and sort of having a conversation with that person. And a lot of memories came back, and sometimes in the form of ghosts. They came back to me in a way that I am more equipped now to write about then when I was falling-down drunk.” He sees Reunions in part as a way to write the songs that person would have written at the time if he had been capable. As he said in a GQ interview, talking about his struggles, “I need to remember those couple of years… most people never get those two years in their whole lives.”
As with all of his post-Southeastern albums, there is a mix of lyrical genius with rock; there is a lot of electric guitar on this album. His last three albums were all produced by his studio alter-ego, Dave Cobb. Unlike many producers, Cobb is a hands-on participant, and he and Isbell are on the same wavelength. Jason consciously wanted a bigger sound, and his vocals are the best ever. In spite of singing in a relatively high register, his voice is clear and solid. Other than David Crosby adding vocals, it’s his band, the 400 Unit, that carries the load. Chad Gamble, Sadler Vaden, Jimbo Hart, and Derry deBorja are seasoned pros and have been with him before and after his fame; they know him and his sensibilities and when to get out of the way. Isbell, Cobb, and the 400 Unit are an exceptional collaboration.
The opening cut, “What Have I Done to Help,” was written long before the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s perfectly timed for this very moment. Sadler Vaden’s screaming guitar breaks and David Crosby’s vocal support ring true, in spite of a bit of repetitiveness in the lyrics. A paean to those less fortunate, it’s a searing call for introspection for those that have much and their lack of commitment to those that have less, and he includes himself in that critique. It’s also worth noting that he does the small things; Reunions is to be fully released on May 15th, but he released it early to independent record stores to help support them during these times. This will be a live show favorite.
Climb to safety
You and me and the baby
We’ll send our thought and prayers
To loved ones on the ground
And as the days went by
We just stopped looking down, down, down
Now the world’s on fire and we just climb higher
‘Til we’re no longer bothered by smoke and sound
Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher
Nothing given, nothing found
What’ve I done to help?
What’ve I done to help?
Somebody save me
What’ve I done to help?
What’ve I done to help but not myself?
Isbell’s strengths are his ability to inhabit characters, to put you in their skin for three minutes or so. “Dreamsicle” is told from the perspective of a child of divorce, a classic Isbell song that uses the smallest details to bring you into this soul. Mixing the enjoyment of childhood with the pain at home, like many of his very best songs, it walks right up to the edge of being maudlin, then steps back. While it may not get the acclaim that many songs will, it is my favorite song on the album.
Poison oak to poison ivy
Dirty jokes that blew right by me
Momma curling up beside me
Crying to herself
Why can’t Daddy just come home?
Forget whatever he did wrong
He’s in a hotel all alone
And we need help
The heartbreak of an absent parent has never been so clearly defined, and the long-term effects made so evident.
New sneakers on a high school court
And you swore you’d be there
My heart breaking through the springtime
Breaking in June
Broken glass and broken vows
I’ll be 18 four years from now
With different friends in a different town
I’ll finally be free
“Only Children” is another intensely personal song. Written about attending a childhood friend’s funeral, someone who never made it out of their hometown, Isbell’s Knopfler-inspired guitar adds the somber tone to this great song. “We spent a lot of formative time together, back home in Alabama,” he recalls. “When somebody has the same interests as you in a small town, they can be like an oasis. That connection never leaves you. If you lose them sometimes you wind up addressing their ghost for the rest of your life.”
Heaven’s wasted on the dead
That’s what your mama said
When the hearse was idling in the parking lot
She said you thought the world of me
And you were glad to see
They finally let me be an astronaut
Are you still taking notes
Will you have anyone to talk to
Castle walls that you can walk through
And do the dead believe in ghosts
Or are you lost in some old building
With over-encouraged only children
Isbell decided to start performing one song on the album around two years ago, called “Overseas;” I heard it live on the Cayamo cruise. The studio version is more uptempo and more polished and could have easily been on Southeastern. A song about a family left behind, with little context but couched in the plight of refugees, it begins with an example of Isbell’s crushing opening stanzas:
Used to be a ghost town
But even the ghosts got out
And the sound of the highway died
There’s ashes in the swimming pool
And closes with a yearning question, and Vaden’s soaring guitar:
Does your heart rest easy where you are?
And do they treat you like a star?
And do they call you refugee?
Relationships are a great source of material for all writers. Mostly they address the flush of young love, the exciting whirlwind time. In “Running With Our Eyes Closed” Isbell takes on the longer view, the more challenging aspects of the years after that exhilaration. A bluesy soft-rocker, it’s an example of the fuller sound of the album.
We can never go back and be strangers
All our secrets are mixed and distilled
But you’ve taught me to temper my anger
And you’ve learned it’s alright to be still
Sleeping on my own when you won’t forgive me
Swallowing my pride til I nearly choke
Screaming at the phone when you don’t believe me
And laughing at the joke
“River” is a nod back to “Live Oak”; it could have been sung by the same narrator, but later, after he is older and lived with his sins for years. Trying to wash himself clean, he turns to his familiar river, but that may not be enough. The spare arrangement, piano accompaniment, and soft harmonies with his wife belie the despair in the lyrics.
The river hears my secrets
things I cannot tell a soul
like the children that I’ve orphaned
and the fortune that I stole
the neighbor who asked questions
‘til he washed up on the shoal
but I’ve done the law some favors
so nobody has to know
“Be Afraid” takes to task those who sit by in the face of tremendous wrongs and the fear it provokes to change that stance. It’s a challenge that he has faced himself, and while initially it sounds like lecturing others, it’s clear he’s not excusing himself from the criticism. The production is excellent; If Phil Spector produced an Isbell anthem, this would be it. Derry deBorja’s powerful organ backdrop fills in all the spaces.
We’ve been testing you and you failed
To see how long that you could hold it in before you screamed
But you only exhaled
I don’t think you even recognize the sound of your voice
When its blasting through the speakers in the sky
And if your words add up to nothing
Then you’re making a choice to sing a cover
When we need a battle cry
“St. Peter’s Autograph” is another song that shows how Isbell’s perspective is sometimes very unique. The narrator lets us know what love is really about: avoiding possessiveness and cherishing former relationships instead of resenting them. In most of his songs, there is always a germ of himself within; in this case, it was written to his wife about the loss of one of her best friends, musician Neil Casal. It’s very idealistic, something to aim for in a relationship; it’s also one of my favorite songs on the album, masterfully written.
What do I do to let you know
That I’m not haunted by his ghost
Let him dance around our room
Let him smell of your perfume
Share your best ‘remember when’
And if he comes through here again
maybe he can make you laugh
Bring St. Peter’s autograph
“It Gets Easier” reflects his wish to converse with his previous self. I doubt he could have written it until putting this album together, because it’s a confessional reminder of his difficult days. He has made many oblique references to his alcoholism in the past, but here he puts it right up front where everyone can see the struggle. He has said he wrote this song for those that were in the midst of that confrontation.
Last night I let myself remember
Times I forgot a woman’s name
I blacked out behind the wheel
How tight the handcuffs feel
My daughter’s eyes when she’s ashamed
It gets easier but it never gets easy
I can say it’s all worth it
but you won’t believe me
Hold down your liquor or swallow your pride
You’d rather keep it inside
It gets easier but it never gets easy
A number of years ago my friend Pierce Pettis wrote and recorded a wonderful song for his daughter called “My Little Girl.” It played at my own daughter’s wedding and always made me tear up. “Letting Her Go” mines this same territory, and it may turn out to be the biggest song on this album. Written for his daughter, like “Something to Love” from The Nashville Sound, it will cause many dads to have to deal with that stubborn old lump in their throat when this song comes on. It certainly recalled many of my moments as a father.
Three in the morning
I’d lay my hand over your heart
just to know you were safe in your sleep
When you started walking I’d fight back the urge to stay
right there beside you
and keep you on your feet
Being your daddy comes natural
The roses just know how to grow
It’s easy to see
that you’ll get where you’re going
but the hard part is letting you go
The hard part is letting you go
Most Isbell fans struggle to pick their favorite album. They all provide a mix of guitar-based rock with insightful lyrics, and acoustic character studies that can tear your heart out or put you in another person’s mind. Additionally, his albums need to grow on you; a first listen is rarely enough to grasp the subtleties of both his lyrics and the artistic musical flourishes.
Isbell has made no secret of the pressure he put on himself making this album. It caused a strain in his marriage, and it took him a while to figure out his fear of failure. He needn’t have worried. Reunions is an excellent album. It’s consistent, with great production, great playing, and his writing continues to set him apart from any of his contemporaries. Jason Isbell is at the top of his game.
Enjoy our Spotify playlist of Jason Isbell’s Reunions.