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Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free” Review



The myth of the South gets dodgier with every passing generation till this one stripped em of their flag and rubbed their noses is their hidebound white trash racism. Maybe they deserved it for that alone. No, let me rephrase, they deserved it for that alone. Something less than free that Jason Isbell, he understands the price the South must be forced to pay not because they are working class laborers unable to get past a paycheck, they must pay for not breaking with their disgraceful history and fighting a civil war to keep men and women and children enslaved.  Jason gets this  through to his very soul: he is, like his former band mates in Drive-By Truckers, a new typecast, white liberal character from Alabama; he isn’t  racist scum, he doesn’t drape himself in the Confederate flag. Actually, what he is is a Southern Bruce Springsteen. A close relative of Nebraska Bruce and on “Speed Trap Town” so close they are brothers under the drawl. The song is a  good, slow, acoustic folkie escaping the South song. Minor? Sure, but moving. And therein lays the problem, when you peaked years ago with “Outfit” and pummeled the depths of cancer stricken tragedy on “Elephant” –a song he will never get over, what is there left to do?  What can the singer songwriter prove he hasn’t already proven?

Well, nothing, and so Something More Than Free, his fifth solo album,  is more of the same only less so. Despite including the epically brilliant “24 Frames” –an extremely tuneful divorce song which doubles as a question of faith and timing, and the equally epic hometown girl gets pregnant way too young “Children Of Children” with its Crosby Stills, Nash And Young jamming out conclusion, two songs good enough to make Isbell’s new look at Southern strife much more than negligible for sure, nothing can save him here. The rest of  Something More Than Free  doesn’t catch fire. The opening song is the lively and catchy working man rocker “If It takes A Lifetime” and it is followed by one of Jason’s greatest achievements “24 Frames” and while the third song is a snooze about romantic love and constancy, and the fourth song the definition of Americana and not in a remotely good way, it isn’t till half way through “Hudson Commodore”, the way he double tracks his drawl on “free”,  Jason loses you and only gets you back once. It is so damn calm and tasteful and clean, it is all so Dave Cobb –the popular producer who makes everything sound soooo good and self-respecting: I think I’d rather listen to Luke Bryan than another one of his productions. He is like Rick Rubin, no one gets away with shit around him, he keeps on re-reacting them in his own image.

That’s one problem and here is another:   You can’t do the same thing twice and expect people to be surprised the second time:  you can’t produce an album filled to the brim with slow paced, thoughtful, literate and tasteful Southern soul and expect people not to expect it and worse, not to compare it to your earlier material, not to compare it to Southeastern.

Jason isn’t turgid or ignorant or lazy or thoughtless. He can write a great song and does so three time here,  Jason isn’t a bad guy or a bad singer, his voice is a beautiful thing, he sings from the heart and you can hear the tick tock of his mind working as he gets that tiny little detail so right, corn taller than a girl with a baby on her hip or  veins through the skin like a faded tattoo  -writerly lines, they are a novelists eye for detail, better than most of what you will hear this year.. His band is fine as well and if Americana must have a Patron Saint they could do a lot worse than this guy, and if the South wants to raise again in the culture wars, Isbell is the guy to get them there.

All true.

But this is still a slow paced bore, with stuff he has done before and better.

Grade: B-

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