In music criticism, one often runs into trouble when trying to describe sustained, consistent excellence. Criticism is good at describing the ruptures in an artist’s work; the peaks and valleys; the seedlings of greatness in a developing act; the moments of great transition, the departures from form. Music criticism is rarely more useful than when it manages to pinpoint the exact moment in an artist’s trajectory when the planets all align perfectly, a major breakthrough occurs, and a career-defining masterpiece is born. But what is there to say about an artist who sets an imposingly high bar, then routinely clears it again and again without much visible strain?
For 41-year-old Alabaman Jason Isbell, that moment of perfect cosmic alignment occurred seven years ago when he released “Southeastern,” his fourth album since leaving his band the Drive-By Truckers, his first album since embracing sobriety, and his first collaboration with producer Dave Cobb (who has produced all of his albums since). The first bars of the chorus on lead-off track “Cover Me Up,” when Isbell’s mahogany-smooth voice bursts into its upper register and cleaves clean through your solar plexus, offered as thrilling and dramatic a moment of music as the last decade has seen. The line in “Elephant” when the listener first realizes what Isbell is singing about can still draw gasps. The interplay between Isbell and violinist-vocalist Amanda Shires (whom he would marry within days of cutting the album) on “Stockholm” was powerful enough to elicit comparisons to some of roots music’s most canonical collaborator-couples. “Southeastern’s” excellence was revelatory.
Since then, Isbell has maintained a level of consistency unmatched by almost any of his generational peers in contemporary rock, country or Americana (the three genres across whose poorly-demarcated boundaries Isbell drifts back and forth), to the point where it no longer comes as much of a surprise. “Southeastern’s” follow-up, “Something More Than Free,” was excellent, as was 2017’s “The Nashville Sound.” His newest, “Reunions,” is a collection of ten expertly crafted tunes whose quality seems almost predictable. The album is not a radical departure. It is as meticulously produced as you’d expect. His longtime band — the 400 Unit, of which Shires is still a member — sounds great, but of course they do. Its excellence is of the entirely unrevelatory kind, and Isbell’s brilliance has become so commonplace that one risks taking it for granted.
Why is that? Perhaps part of the problem is that criticism often has a contentious relationship with the notion of craft. It loves the illusion of musical spontaneity, of untamable, unbridled passion that somehow manages to land perfectly on the beat. It’s less adept at recognizing the toil and precision and trial-and-error it takes to give off that illusion. On “Reunions,” Isbell is always willing to show his work, and there are tracks here — like the lovely, bittersweet reverie “Dreamsicle” — that practically function as songwriting clinics. A child’s-eye snapshot of life in a broken home, the song keeps carefully recalibrating its balance of tangible nostalgic details and shadowy hints of tragedy: “New sneakers on the high school court” is immediately undercut with “when you swore you’d be there”; a word-perfect country couplet like “Poison oak and poison ivy / Dirty jokes that flew right by me” takes a quick nosedive into “Mama curling up beside me / Crying to herself.” Isbell is a master of these little tricks, always knowing when to chase his sentimentality with a shot of ugliness, his quotable slogans with something off-puttingly odd. In his hands, complex melodies sound simple, and he knows how to delay resolving straightforward chord progressions just long enough to make them sound new. The fact that he’s been pulling this stuff off for years now shouldn’t obscure how rare those talents are.
Of course, “Reunions” is not simply business as usual for Isbell, and there’s plenty here to distinguish the album from its predecessors. Isbell has spoken in interviews of an increased interest in ‘80s rock icons like the Cure and Squeeze, and those new textures are certainly present, from the synths and dry, Mark Knopfler-esque guitar on “Running With Our Eyes Closed” to the traces of synth-period Don Henley in Isbell’s vocals on “River.” Neither of these songs stray too dramatically from Isbell’s comfort zone, however, and they’re also two of the album’s weaker cuts. “River” in particular goes down so gently, with Isbell’s delivery so clean and gospel-like, that its unexpectedly ominous lyrics never quite connect — you can’t help but feel the younger, rawer Isbell who sneered at Hendrix-butchering cover bands on “Codeine” would have given this track the bite it needed.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t points where the fangs come out. Gently, at first, on “Only Children,” a simultaneously tender and self-effacing portrait of twentysomething creative self-obsession; then much more sharply on single “Be Afraid,” an uptempo anthem that seemingly takes aim at Isbell’s compatriots in country music who are reticent to ruffle feathers. Isbell himself has been increasingly vocal about issues ranging from gun control to white privilege, and even entered the political endorsement game when he campaigned for Democratic Senator Doug Jones in his home state – nodding to the Dixie Chicks, he resolves to never “shut up and sing,” and promises “you tell the truth enough, you find it rhymes with everything.”
That song thankfully stops just short of self-righteousness, and it helps that Isbell saves plenty of the album’s sharpest barbs for himself. Opener “What’ve I Done to Help” could be read as an indictment of the whole “issues awareness” mode of celebrity activism, as Isbell confronts the inoculating effects of success and the blurry lines between self-preservation and selfishness. Though obviously written and recorded before the COVID-19 outbreak, the song strikes a chillingly prescient note as he sings: “We climbed to safety / You and me and the baby / Send our thoughts and prayers to loved ones on the ground / And as the days went by, we just stopped looking down.” (The presence of David Crosby here, ad-libbing over a long outro in much the same way he did on CSNY’s “Ohio,” provides an implicit bridge between two very different types of protest song.) Things get even more personal later on: Isbell has sung about substance abuse before, but “It Gets Easier” is his fullest-throated attempt to write an AA anthem, and its opening stanzas — “Last night I dreamt that I’d been drinking … I had one glass of wine / I woke up feeling fine / That’s how I knew it was a dream” — deserve a place of honor among his most indelible lines.
And yet, the best song on “Reunions” is also probably its least quotable. The most classically country composition to be found here, closer “Letting You Go” is a waltz-time love-letter from father to daughter in which the speaker follows her from the maternity ward to the wedding chapel, learning how to recede further and further into the background of her life as she grows up. This subject is fairly well-trod ground for the genre, of course, but Isbell plays it arrow-straight. There’s no clever narrative reversal here; no subversion of the form; no real surprises. Just pure, primary-color emotions, perfectly phrased and sculpted by a songwriter saying exactly what he means. It takes an artist with Isbell’s confidence, earned through years of sustained excellence, to know when to leave well enough alone. Underestimate that at your peril.