Somehow I’m still out here burning my days
Your voice makes the miles melt away
I’ll be guarding your place
in the lights, on the stage, in my heart
I guess we’re all still finding our part
I hate to admit it, but I once didn’t think too much of Jason Isbell. He would come through town a couple times a year, and he was always on the “I’ll catch him next time” list that resided somewhere deep in my brain. Good enough, not great enough — that’s what I thought at the time.
But that all changed with Southeastern. For me, it was listening to “Cover Me Up” for the first time — it was as if Isbell finally figured out his gift, and knowing the clock was ticking, he was using it fully. “Elephant,” “Traveling Alone,” “Relatively Easy,” “Flying Over Water,” those are all examples of elite songwriting. And in today’s immediacy of “more more more, and now now now,” it begged the question: How on earth will he continue to keep people happy?
The answer is Isbell’s new album, Something More Than Free, an entirely different body of work than its predecessor, yet full of integrity and authenticity. This is an album without a genre, an album that turns right, then left, then exits a few times to take the long way home. It opens with a throwback country song, “If It Takes a Lifetime,” that almost sounds nothing like the rest of its songs. Crazy move, I say.
It works because its greatest message is that life is truly here today, gone tomorrow; we’re all still figuring this out, and we can only hope the cards fall our way. Listen closely, and you’ll hear it on songs like “Children of Children” (You and I were almost nothing / Pray to God the Gods were bluffing), “The Life You Chose” (Are you living the life you chose? / Are you living the life that chose you?”), and the album’s best song, “To a Band That I Loved,” which is a eulogy to Centro-Matic, one of Isbell’s biggest influences. It’s a terrific, haunting tale of how it all can abruptly halt. “How I miss you today,” Isbell sings.
And perhaps that’s what missing someone or something is: a place beyond words. Something more than free.
Essential tracks: “To a Band That I Loved,” “24 Frames,” “The Life You Chose,” “Speed Trap Town,” “Children of Children”