“I try to remind myself of people who have actual problems,” says Jason Isbell, shaking off the question as to whether or not he felt pressure to top his massively lauded 2013 collection, Southeastern, when he returned to the studio for what would become Something More Than Free, out Friday on his own label. “Following up a successful record is not an actual problem, in the grand scheme of things,” he says. “I just tried to make sure I spent as much time as possible on these songs, until I had something I could be proud of.”
Much of what makes up Something More Than Free is familiar fare: sepia-toned tracks steeped in Southern mythology, that baritone, and flourishes of wife-and-fiddler Amanda Shires’ smokey harmonies. But there is more of his longtime backing band, the 400 Unit. It’s also happier—though one could still argue its a far cry from joyous. The question it asks over and over, through vignettes of blue-collar life is bigger. In fact, it’s the biggest question.
“What’s the meaning of all this?” Isbell asks, by way of explanation. “Why do I get up and go to work every day just so I can get up and go to work the next day? That’s the heart of the human experience—that philosophical struggle with purpose. I’m lucky enough to have all the purpose that I need out of my career and my family and my life, so I try to focus on people who don’t quite have that figured out, or haven’t been given the opportunity to figure that out.”
Before Southeastern, Isbell was almost exclusively thought of as a “former Drive-By Trucker.” He was 22 when he found his way into the hard-living Southern rock outfit and while it became obvious early on that he was a rare songwriting talent, it was just six years of hardly-remembered living later that he found his way out. He then put out a few just-okay solo albums, fell in love with Shires and she, along with Ryan Adams, who’d recently toured with, and his manager put him in rehab. After, Southeastern began to come together.
(Rarely one to mince words, Isbell sums up the journey much quicker. “I’ve been pretty close to the edge a few times,” he says. “I’m happy to have made it back alright.”)
That story doesn’t exist with Something More Than Free. Consequently, there isn’t a ” Cover Me Up”, the world-weary AMA Song of the Year that opened Southeastern with those now much-loved lines “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time”, but the album finds gravity in another love song. It’s called “Flagship” and it does a neat little trick, crooning of a couple who finds comfort in promises of what they’ll never become. “Baby let’s not ever get that way / I’ll drive you to the ocean every day / We’ll stay up in the Presidential Suite / Call ourselves the flagship of the fleet” so goes the chorus. “It’s really, really challenging to write a love song from a point of view that hasn’t already been explored a thousand times,” Isbell says of the tune.
Other highlights include the deeply personal “Children of Children” which uses an example of a young couple to, as Isbell says, explain his parents’ relationship to each other as well as to him. And the album’s closer, “To A Band That I Loved,” is a touching eulogy for Centro-Matic, a band he fell for while on tour with the Truckers that called it quits last year. “That’s something I grieved over for awhile,” he says of the group’s demise. “It’s something that, to me, people don’t discuss enough in songs.” Elsewhere, Free is sometimes catchy (“24 Frames”), sometimes electric (“Palmetto Rose”), somehow rueful in its hopefulness (“The Life You Chose”), and at times profoundly poetic (“Speed Trap Town”).
All, highlights and otherwise, make good on what Southeastern hinted: That at his best, which both Southeastern and Something More Than Free are—though wouldn’t it be scary if they still weren’t?—Isbell is the finest sort of songsmith.