Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit—Reunion

Jason Isbell might just be a genuine modern country legend in the making. After his early years (2001-2007) with the alternative country-rock band, Drive-By Truckers Isbell went solo, releasing several critically acclaimed albums: some under his own name and others with the support of his backing band, the 400 Unit. Isbell quit drugs and alcohol in 2012 and subsequently married his second wife: songwriter, backup singer and fiddle player, Amanda Shires. They had their first child in 2015. Most recently, Isbell worked with John Prine on his final album, The Tree of Forgiveness and following Prine's death in April of 2020 penned in The New York Times a moving and intimate opinion piece

Isbell is a multi-instrumentalist talent boasting a back catalog of impressive depth and range who can effortlessly segue from country-punk to acoustic balladry. He’s unflinchingly candid about his substance abuse struggles both in interviews and through his music. His story and image certainly make for captivating musical mythos: cool suits, great guitars, expertly weathered pipes, and a checkered past that he refuses to disown.

Reunions is a worthwhile slow burn of an album. Produced by Dave Cobb (who also produced Prine’s final record, and many other critically acclaimed modern country records), it’s sonically delicate; even when it’s rocking. The first few plays it’s easy to miss the album’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail. Still, there is a tension that’s hard to ignore as a result of the lyrical walls with which Isbell surrounds himself. Personal revelations are tempered with ambiguity. However, like a good puzzle, it’s worth taking the time to make Reunions’ pieces fit. 

“Dreamsicle”—a standout track—offers a cutting, uncomfortable view of a broken adolescent home: “Dreamsicle on a summer night / in a folding lawn chair / daddy’s howling at the moon / better get home soon” Acoustic guitars surround Isbell’s squarely centered plaintive voice: piano, guitar and fiddle flourishes enhance the wistful ballad: a sad sun sets on a warm summer night: Isbell’s expert compositional skills juxtapose the conflicting realities. 

Snapshots of woebegone memories and imagery surround “Only Children” which features Knopfleresque guitar licks cascading over what sounds to be a Mellotron choir. Mellotrons are not very country, but this helps make Reunions unique in its sonic quest: 21st century Nashville. 

Lead guitar work on “What’ve I Done to Help” risks overwhelming some arrangements as it also does on “Overseas,” another commanding tune. The skills are top-notch and usually serve Isbell’s songs well, but on this album’s understated and restrained setting, the licks occasionally threaten grandiloquence. Curiously, at the time of writing, the vinyl record packaging and Isbell’s website denote no information regarding musicians, producers, mixing, mastering or any other production and recording details. Discogs was my source for those particulars.

Lyrically, Reunions can occasionally be a bit of a bewildering fever dream. This is especially true on the confounding “River.” A seemingly autobiographical number turns into a Springsteen character study leading somewhere wholly unexpected. Usually, this would be a fine approach, but in the context of this album, quasi-personalization makes for an impractical stab at fiction and throws the listener unexpectedly off-balance. Isbell knows where he’s going, but he’s a hard man to follow.

“Running With Our Eyes Closed” channels a Dawes vibe via Jackson Browne and Dire Straits replete with synth pads. It’s the least country cut on this record, but the most arena-friendly. Here, Isbell finally hooks into the hypnotic anthem that he’s been fishing for as he does on “Be Afraid” and “Overseas,” the latter succeeding as a haunting tale exploring a life’s gaps in the absence of a close companion.

“It Gets Easier” squarely hits the mark: a contemporary mid-tempo country rocker which lays bare the hard truth that quitting drugs and alcohol “gets easier, but it never gets easy.” Here, Isbell manipulates the demons that he is so frank about discussing, into a tuneful piece of music that will very certainly save some lives and provide inspiration to those yearning for a clean slate; it’s grown up millennial wisdom. 

The vinyl version of Isbell’s newest release is a marked improvement over the hi-rez version I accessed via Qobuz. Mastered by Pete Lyman at Infrasonic Studios, the soundstage is wider and more nuanced; delicate instrumental flourishes find their space whereas the hi-rez version felt more congested, edgy and uptight. Unfortunately, the black vinyl copy I purchased is slightly dished, though I don’t note an audible detriment. Otherwise, the record was clean, well-centered and very quiet. There are other vinyl variants: orange “dreamsicle,” transparent orange with black swirls and the Vinyl Me, Please clear vinyl edition that on Discogs is already selling for around $200.00.

You might almost miss it, but there is a real country waltz gem tucked in at the end of the album. On “Letting Go”, Isbell turns in a disarmingly effective tune that will make every daddy’s heart go mushy. The narrative here is focused and explores a father’s protective relationship with his daughter alongside his own shortcomings and inexperience: “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 / the hard part is letting you go.”  Here, Isbell proudly displays his country card with understated brilliance and delivers a song that fathers might embarrassingly sing to their daughters at weddings for years to come. 

As enjoyable as Reunions is, something is missing; there remains a mysterious, stoic inaccessibility here that is somewhat perplexing when viewed in parallel with his strikingly accessible personal life and in contrast to his back catalog. It’s a perilous way to spin a narrative: less a captivating plot-twist, more a diversion; almost as if the storyteller began a hasty retreat after getting too close to the truth. Perhaps Isbell himself isn’t sure about the musical legacy he hopes to leave behind: is it country? Pop? Is he a sober family man, or an outlaw country rascal? He’ll continue to sort this out and may very well turn in more albums with the unified vision he’s proven himself capable of producing. Until then, sit down for a few spins of Reunions and sort through its pieces. You might not create the picture you’re hoping to see, but so what? It’s an album, not a puzzle.

Evan Toth is a New Jersey-based songwriter, professional musician, educator, avid record collector and hi-fi aficionado. He also hosts and produces The Sharp Notes on WFDU, 89.1 FM each Saturday evening at 6pm. Follow him at the usual social media places and learn more on his website. (Evan invited me onto his WFDU radio show a few years ago, and that led to me getting my own show, many editions of which you can still stream on this website under the “Blogs” dropdown menu and “AnalogPlanet Radio”—MF).

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Tom L's picture

I enjoyed this perceptive review, but it's short-sighted to typify Jason Isbell as a "modern country" artist. Yes, some of his material uses fiddle and has some twang in the vocals, but his range is much wider, from classic country to folk singer/songwriter to loud bar rock to Eagles folk-rock, blues, and even some MOR moments. If I had to put him in a box it would be the vague category of "Americana". Better yet, he should be considered a multifarious musician, one with the ability to use many different genres to form his own artistic identity.

Roy Martin's picture

..."multifaceted?" I agree with the latter, not the former.

Tom L's picture

Multifarious: Having many different parts, elements, forms, etc. numerous and varied; greatly diverse or manifold.

Multifaceted: Someone or something with many features or perspectives to consider.

Either way is fine with me.

Duke86fan's picture

who are you and what happened to malachi.. is this the new protege to fremer?

MalachiLui's picture

still here and will resume posting things next week, slammed with other things rn tho. however you can look forward to reviews of boris, yung lean, merzbow, the 1975, and many many more. the bottom of the above review has the writer's bio and connection to fremer explained.

Lars Bo's picture

Somehow overlooked you've been doing these shows, Michael.

Just listened to your Bowie/Scary Monsters tribute with interviews, 9. Jan 2017, and oh my: Great stuff, Michael.

I love Bowie's point of The Third Statement; valid for musical audio as well, I think.

Thanks, Michael.

And, of course, welcome to Evan.

TonyG's picture

An excellently written review. I'm a huge Isbell fan. But after the greatness of "Southeastern" I've wondered where he was heading to with each successive recording. You articulate those concerns much better than I could. He is an artist worthy of repect and support.

I hope you can continue writing album reviews.

Tom L's picture

to knock Evan for labeling Isbell's music as country, that's just what the industry has done. Reunion is currently atop the Country, Rock and Americana radio charts...

Glotz's picture

I now know what this album is about musically and sonically. Thanks dude.

weirdo12's picture

An interesting lead in I suppose but it's a little late to be making that prediction. He was already well on the way when he was a DBT ;-) And BTW, I don't think it's fair to call the DBT alt-country especially during the period he was a member! I enjoyed the article. Thanks. See you at the Rock Show.

my new username's picture

This is my proper introduction to this artist despite knowing of him for many years. Currently through the first listen (I use Spotify to preview potential purchases).

I'm another of those that doesn't quite understand the "genuine modern country legend" label everyone feels they need to ascribe to Jason Isbell. I generally consider Country music to mostly be a sad mess of ideology and marketing that gives fans pop and rock music in a way that won't offend their lack of cultural exploration elsewhere. I get why artists such as Isbell are different, but then again the bar can seem pretty low at times.

Isbell's voice has the character of several pop or rock vocalists from years gone by. It's perfectly fine and serves the music well but I find myself looking for deeper connection sometimes, ya know? Dreamsicle, It Gets Easier and Letting You Go of course all resonate lyrically. He's not really one for memorable melodies however.

Reunions often has a dense-ness that implies more seriousness than is perhaps warranted by the subject material. Perhaps that's an artifact of Big Time Production Values. I generally dig the simpler passages and less so the anthemic aspects that will no doubt fill arenas of the future.