Review Summary: Maybe these words will hold the beast back.Reunions
signals the end of Jason Isbell’s post-sobriety trilogy of masterpieces. This sentence on its own would likely be largely disappointing for the fanbase that Isbell has amassed spanning the past two decades, the followers that feel as though they know Isbell peronsally due to his knack for baring his soul through music. Reunions
is far more polished than any of Isbell’s previous work, taking on a sound that is somewhere between his work with the Drive-By Truckers and the more intimate country stylings of his solo career. The sonic departure isn’t the main aspect that has indicated the end of this trilogy - It’s the lyrical content. Isbell has always been an empathetic songwriter that often tries to share his experiences through eyes of people that are not himself. These are often stories that are reflections on Isbell’s past, but Reunions
gives us the most distinct look into Isbell as the man he is now, with direct experiences from him being intertwined with the out-of-body storytelling masterpieces he has become well-known for.
This shift is most drastic in two lead singles “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid”. “What’ve I Done to Help” opens the album with a near seven-minute-long bass-heavy groove-infused rocker that truly has backing band The 400 Unit working as a unit. While the opening half of the song has many lyrical nuggets, the second half is largely powered by the band as Isbell repeats “What’ve I done to help/Somebody saved me
”, with backing vocals by David Crosby making it a quintessential protest song. Lead single “Be Afraid” doubles down on this message and style, with the line “If your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice, to sing a cover when we need a battle cry”
already becoming fairly infamous. The chorus of the song is a repeat of the battle cry “Be afraid, be very afraid/Do it anyway
, making it similar to “What’ve I Done to Help”: the message is in the right place, the verses and music deliver, but the chorus doesn’t quite hit the standards expected of Isbell. While these two songs originally painted the image of a pretty large shift for Isbell, the rest of the album falls perfectly between them and Isbell’s past work.
In fact, the rest of the Reunions
sees Isbell at his height musically and competing with the rest of his storied career lyrically. “Dreamsicle” is the most complete song he’s ever made, with the battling dichotomy of wistful childhood memories and turmoil being perfectly captured by the 400 Unit, creating the perfect meld of Isbell’s acoustic work and a full band backing. Just a few songs later, “River”, a jaunty tune with the welcome addition of a piano and some wonderful back-and-forth with Amanda Shires’ fiddle playing, competes with “Dreamsicle” for this title. “River” is also the best example of Isbell’s fictional-narrative-but-really-about himself lyrical approach, telling the story of a murderer returning to a river time and time again, wishing it would carry him to oblivion, all while asking it for forgiveness at the same time.
These reflections on Isbell’s current life are a large theme of Reunions
. He has largely wrapped up on contemplating his past path and is now focused on where it has led him and where he hopes it will lead, as well as welcoming the ghosts of his life as something that will be a constant presence. This new focus leads to some of the most blunt lyrics of Isbell’s career and, interestingly, his most direct take on his struggles with substance abuse, a theme that was largely told through symbolic imagery beforehand. “It Gets Easier” is entirely about his day-to-day life as a man that is 8-years-clean. He is clearly happy to have won that battle, but can’t help but think of the temptations and hardships that come with it. Closing track “Letting You Go” is a straightforward telling of his experience of being a new father, from the first moments of taking his daughter home from the hospital to imagining giving her away at her wedding. Both songs serve as examples that Isbell can step away from his fictional narrative style and still write deeply impactful songs.
It also cannot be stated enough how much the 400 Unit has come into their own on Reunions
. This is the most cohesive they have sounded across an entire record backing Isbell and perhaps the first time where a full-band backing actually enhances his songwriting style as opposed to just serving as an additional accoutrement. They offer variety across the record, from the wistfulness of “Dreamsicle” to the haunting acoustics of “Only Children” to the aforementioned rockers. “Overseas” is another musical highlight, where guitars punctuate what may be Isbell’s best and most dynamic vocal performance of his career. Instead of feeling like an unneeded accessory, which has sometimes been the case on past albums, the 400 Unit amplifies the theme of each individual song. While some of the songwriting on Reunions
may be more simple, that fact is more than made up for with the musical artistry on hand.
is undeniably a new brand of Jason Isbell record. It’s musical style is fairly different from anything he has released before, he has a different lyrical approach across much of the album, and the man behind the music is looking towards the present and future, even though reflection on the past is still very much present. With that being said, there is no mistaking that this is a Jason Isbell record through and through. It isn’t a change in sound as much as it is a logical evolution and combining of influences, as well as a backing band that is finally reaching their potential. It still contains impactful lyrics like “What do I do to let you know/That I’m not haunted by his ghost/Let him dance around our room/Let him smell of your perfume
” and “‘Heaven's wasted on the dead’"/That's what your mama said/When the hearse was idling in the/parking lot/She said you thought the world of me/And you were glad to see/They finally let me be an astronaut”
. More than anything, it is still incredibly authentic and an opening into the soul of a real man. With Reunions
Jason Isbell has welcomed us all into this new stage of his life, even while he’s not quite sure what it will look like.