Jason Isbell
Reunions


4.5
superb

Review

by Mathias CONTRIBUTOR (41 Reviews)
May 15th, 2020 | 66 replies


Release Date: 05/15/2020 | Tracklist

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.

Reunions 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.




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user ratings (53)
3.8
excellent

Comments:Add a Comment 
dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
May 15th 2020


1358 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

The best singer/songwriter of this generation is back at it again. Lucky to have gotten this a week early through pre-order, can't rave about it enough.



Feedback is welcome as always!

Digging: Ismay - Songs of Sonoma Mountain

DoofDoof
May 15th 2020


8369 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

this is v good

NorthernSkylark
May 15th 2020


10204 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

damn, very excited to spin this

Digging: Asaf Avidan - Gold Shadow

SowingSeason
Moderator
May 15th 2020


34980 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

'Only Children' is gorgeous damn. On my first listen and this is excellent so far. Great review, too.

Digging: Geology - Light of the Risen Year

theBoneyKing
May 15th 2020


18989 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

On first listen, this is solid, but didn’t blow me away. Feels a tad more consistent than The Nashville Sound but maybe doesn’t peak quite as high. I do think Isbell’s writing has become a bit trite in this more recent stuff. Hoping it’ll grow though!

Digging: The Jim Yoshii Pile-Up - It's Winter Here

SowingSeason
Moderator
May 15th 2020


34980 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Finished my first listen and was thoroughly impressed. Only a few songs "blew me away", but it was very good/consistent otherwise. The first few tracks are all amazing which makes this easy to sink into.

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
May 15th 2020


1358 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Yeah I will say there are no Cover Me Ups or If We Were Vampires on here, but there are like 5 or 6 Traveling Alones. He traded in some of those emotional gut punches for a bit more of a content life, so fair play to him on that

theBoneyKing
May 15th 2020


18989 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Interesting Sowing, I wasn’t terribly keen on the first two, “Only Children” was the first one that impressed me. But like I said, need to give this time. Could definitely see this becoming my favorite of the 400 Unit albums, but doubt it’ll top any of the solo billed albums.

theBoneyKing
May 15th 2020


18989 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

FWIW, Isbell ranked: Southeastern > Something More Than Free > Sirens of the Ditch > Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit > The Nashville Sound > Here We Rest

insomniac15
Staff Reviewer
May 15th 2020


5124 Comments

Album Rating: 3.8

Great album and review

Digging: Boris - NO

Dylan620
May 15th 2020


5348 Comments


I envisioned "What've I Done to Help" as a centerpiece when I heard it as a single, so I was surprised to find it's the opener, but it actually kinda works

Digging: Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

Sunnyvale
May 15th 2020


1533 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Album rules, this guy is one of the best artists of this century so far

dmathias52
Contributing Reviewer
May 15th 2020


1358 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Agreed Sunnyvale. I'd say comfortably he's the Dylan of this generation.

And Isbell ranked for me: Southeastern > Something More Than Free > Here We Rest > The Nashville Sound > Sirens of the Ditch > Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Reunions will probably settle nicely between Something More Than Free and Here We Rest, but could overtake Something More Than Free

theBoneyKing
May 15th 2020


18989 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Gave this a second listen while on a walk on a sunny day, the hottest of the year so far, and it sounded much better! Got to focus on the lyrics a bit more and there’s defintirly some great stuff there. “Overseas” is incredible.

NorthernSkylark
May 15th 2020


10204 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

i also prefer his solo stuff, but i like that his voice takes the center stage on this one

SowingSeason
Moderator
May 15th 2020


34980 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Only Children and Overseas are both perfect and my two favorites thus far

neekafat
Contributing Reviewer
May 15th 2020


19526 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"The best singer/songwriter of this generation is back at it again"

that's a violently bold claim hmm

botulist
May 15th 2020


485 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

does this guy use petals for his armour?

NorthernSkylark
May 15th 2020


10204 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"he's the Dylan of this generation"



weep.

botulist
May 15th 2020


485 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0 | Sound Off

i think that user is his mom, just leave it alone, he's a good boy, Mrs. Isbell, he's very talented!



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