Reviewed in the United States on May 18, 2020
How do you review a Jason Isbell album? How do you review perfection? How do you review an album when you know, before you even listen, that you will have a hard time finding any flaws?
There are very few artists whose albums I will just buy without reading any reviews or hearing any songs, or even clips, just because it was released. Richard Thompson. Gillian Welch/David Rawlings. That’s the level I require. A new RT album comes out, and I’m going to buy it. A new Welch/Rawlings album comes out— unfortunately a rarer event— and I’m going to buy it.
Isbell. Reunions. Just buy it.
With that said, how does one review an album under these circumstances, with an artist like this? A songwriter like this, a singer and guitarist like this, with a band like this, when everything is just cooking? Isbell’s solo career didn’t start out quite this perfectly, of course. His first solo album didn’t give the clarity that he would be what he is now. After leaving the Drive-By Truckers, having done some of their best material, his first solo album was good but a bit of a let-down. It took some time, and a few albums for The 400 Unit to gel. Now that it has, Isbell is one of those musicians who can do no wrong. This is something like the Richard Thompson path. If we’re honest, some of his earlier work wasn’t up to snuff, just as some of the Fairport Convention material didn’t give a clear indication of what he could become as a soloist. I love the Drive-By Truckers, but Isbell, as it turns out, was in the wrong band. That’s a contrast with Welch and Rawlings, who started out perfect. Whatever it takes, though.
Now that Isbell has arrived, we have a problem. Any time he releases an album… album of the year. That’s it. We’re done. You can tell that before you listen, you then get the sublime experience of listening, and listening repeatedly, and there it is.
So where does this fit within the growing canon of Isbell’s work? Aside, of course, from being genius? Others can comment on the lyricism, which balances his life experience, parenthood and some commentary. Musically, this may be my favorite of his studio albums. He did a string of folkier albums punctuated by country-rock, making that his bread and butter for a while in the studio. He changed that up a bit for The Nashville Sound, and with Reunions, he’s making a case for himself as a rock star. He kind of is anyway, at this point, in a narrow niche, but whether you see a show or just watch them online, the 400 Unit retains its twang, but it can rock out with the best of them. Reunions is a studio album playing to that. They aren’t just turning it up to 11 for the sake of doing so, and the material all works, but this is Isbell going about as much to the rock side as he is apt to do.
His voice and his timing, though, maintain something of the Mike Cooley thing of singing a bit behind the beat, just to keep that drawl and to keep the tension in the music. That combined with the band— including Amanda’s violin, so that it isn’t just guitar duels between Jason and Sadler Vaden— means that you’re never being inundated with rock bombast. It’s always done with Isbell’s taste and sophistication. That’s why you can just trust and buy.
Some musicians burn brightly, and burn themselves out. Some need to age. Then, you get Isbell, who shone with the Truckers, and then struggled to get his footing as a solo artist. Now, he’s just the best. I wouldn’t have known that this was going to be his rock album, and I wouldn’t have cared. I’ll just click, “buy,” on an Isbell album. At this point, there isn’t even a decision to be made anymore.
Further listening: You know all of the common names associated with Isbell, like Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, but the other “perfect” musician on the roots scene, who can do everything— Darrell Scott. Virtuoso guitarist, amazing singer, amazing songwriter. What more do you want? Pay attention to this man! Then check out The Black Lillies, and whatever Cruz Contreras does next. Maybe some Pierce Edens.