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Review: Jason Isbell Sees a Darkness, Embraces Light on ‘Something More Than Free’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: July 16, 2015
Label: Southeastern/Thirty Tigers

At some point after the storm, after days, weeks, or years of tumult and uncertainty, the clouds part. The sun shines. Everything feels right, however tenuously. This was the exact moment that Jason Isbell’s last solo record, 2013’s Southeastern, captured. During his days as a member of the freewheeling Alabama quintet Drive By Truckers, Isbell developed something of a reputation as a drunk, and judging by his former bandmate Patterson Hood’s occasional comments, not a particularly “sweet” one. Things got worse, but he eventually got help and came out the other side. Newly sober, he released the most critically acclaimed LP of his career, a record that was full of gratitude for making it through, but still a little uneasy in its outlook.

But on his newest, Something More Than Free, the sun’s finally around for good. After decades of grimly realist depictions of Southern life, it’s hard to imagine that Isbell could have gone saccharine, and he hasn’t. But for the first time, Isbell’s actually looking up, and when relating his ever-literate tales of down-on-their-luck characters, there’s a welcoming hopefulness — a sly grin and a knowledge that, worry not, it does get better. Such an optimistic streak shines through from the opening moments of the first cut, “If It Takes a Lifetime.” Stagnating in a dead-end job, the track’s narrator “can’t remember a day when [they] didn’t wanna disappear” but they still hold onto the chorus like a self-help mantra: “My day will come / If it takes a lifetime.”

It’s a lilting uplift that carries through to Something‘s starry-eyed instrumentation too. Southeastern‘s stark acoustics are supplanted with glimmers and shimmers that’ll please those who miss Isbell’s DBT days. Even traditionally mournful string lines sing with instinctual morningbird glee, as if Isbell can’t help but give his more dour songs (“Children of Children,” “Hudson Commodore”) a sliver of hope. He even punctuates the record’s bitterest moments (like the Old Testament assertion on “24 Frames” that God isn’t an “architect” but a “pipe bomb ready to blow”) with a burst of glee and guitar solo that drifts like the first few flakes of an impending snow day. Southeastern was a showcase of Isbell’s songwriting prowess, and a compelling bookend to a dark period of his life, but Something lends some necessary light to his grave solemnity.

And, consequently, Something More Than Free doesn’t feel like the same sort of totemic release that Isbell has given in the past. Its stakes are a little lower, and he’s no longer revealing grand truths about life, but documenting once-dire realities from a rosier lens is still a worthwhile undertaking. Like the title attests, Isbell is more than just liberated from the bad that’s followed him around; he’s happy again. And each sunny guitar solo serves a pointed reminder that he beat the darkness — and you can too.