Genre: Country, Americana
Favorite Tracks: “Dreamsicle,” “River,” “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” “Only Children,” “What’ve I Done To Help”
The country-industrial complex is turning itself on its head again. The artists that forced Nashville’s hand toward making that change are all responding in ways that feel appropriate to them. The image of the cowboy has been successfully rehabilitated and reinitiated into popular culture; its iconography, rugged masculinity existing alongside winking queerness and marked with themes of isolation and melancholy, had perhaps not seen such a strong identitarian schism since the days of the rhinestone cowboys in the late 1960s, and had not been challenged ideologically in meaningful ways since Natalie Maines’ anti-Iraq War stance. The cowboy exists outside of country music, and always has, but 2019 was arguably the first time that you could say the dominant cultural reference of the cowboy existed outside of it in the minds of music listeners. Jason Isbell contributed to this recontextualization himself by penning “Shallow” for A STAR IS BORN, a song that is not strictly a country song, but undoubtedly contributed to the building of the cowboy myth in the late 2010s.
Now, as artists in all areas of music celebrate these images in pastiche, the mainstream has doubled down on its country iconography. Former Voice contestant and bro-country white boy of the month Morgan Wallen would have trotted on-stage this summer wearing a cutoff denim shirt, blue jeans with a big-ass belt buckle, and sporting a mustache and mullet combo that would have made 1990 Billy Ray Cyrus blush. He’s still going to sing about shooting whiskey in a Chevy and all of the other things that the industry has realized that people want to hear about, but the packaging is a little different.
A concurrent stream of music, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit fit under a genre loosely referred to as “Americana” and this, to me, is a loaded term in its own right. It’s largely a catch-all term, meant to refer to something that sounds vaguely like American roots music in some form but doesn’t firmly adhere to it. As easy as it is to take potshots at Nashville, this idea might be just as insidious. The world of “Americana” is patronized by NPR-ass retiree landlords in Columbia Sportswear. It seldom challenges minds and hearts, existing as mellow background music for enjoying one’s wealth. Just like in Nashville, authenticity is a product to be sold in this world, and little more than that.
Isbell has proven that he’s an artist who is capable of carrying the torch for “Americana” without dipping into the baggage that comes with it, and he’s done so just by being himself. He tells his own stories with often devastating effectiveness, and demonstrates self-awareness in his songwriting without being self-aggrandizing or preachy. Nothing about his sound seems forced, like he’s trying to make his music come out a certain way or, that he’s trying to avoid sounding too much like he’s running from a particular sound. Despite the details in his songs scanning as intimate, personal, and often confessional, they’re presented with a frankness that conveys wisdom and comfort.
REUNIONS features the most overt sonic exploration of any Isbell record yet. “What’ve I Done To Help” dips its toe into the early ‘70s acoustic soul sounds of artists like Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye, and sees Isbell wrestle with the familiar territory of privilege and political frustration. We see something of a new look from Isbell on “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” and to some extent on “Overseas,” that resembles the solo work of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler, midtempo rock songs that have a little bit of folk and a lilting funk to them. “Dreamsicle”, a phenomenal and transportive track at the top of the album, is a gorgeously melancholic reflection on a difficult childhood. While it’s not hard to miss the harder-rocking tracks of THE NASHVILLE SOUND, because the 400 Unit is very good at them, “Be Afraid” and “It Gets Easier” do a fair job of filling that gap. It also helps that Isbell’s more overtly personally reflective tracks on this record are his best since SOUTHEASTERN—“River” is a gorgeous sort of secular baptismal song, and like Isbell’s album closer and take on the classic Country Daddy-Daughter Song “Letting You Go,” it’s incredible to listen to Isbell be as successful at working from within previous notions of country music as he is at expanding it.
Each musical genre has a handful of performers who are savvy and talented enough to rise above popular trends in that way. REUNIONS is certainly one of Isbell’s best records, perhaps his very best, but that’s a subjective point—definitively speaking, it succeeds in establishing Isbell as that kind of artist.