Review Summary: Don't call him Mr. Brightside
Throughout his post Drive-By Truckers solo career, there’s always been a strong current of darkness in Jason Isbell’s music, whether it’s out in the open or lurking beneath the surface. The singer-songwriter’s comfort navigating on the bleak edges of existence is what makes his 2013 record Southeastern
tick, resulting in a masterwork widely viewed as the
album to beat in the contemporary Americana scene. In the ten years since, the man’s been on fire, releasing a series of pretty killer records, and continually expounding upon melancholy and pessimistic tales, not all directly personal but undeniably drawing upon his ample life experiences - a rough childhood in the South, a youth spent touring, and a tortuous road to sobriety. Isbell’s tunes aren’t totally averse to uplifting and gorgeous sentiments, but those tend to come with a hearty dose of glass-half-full realism - “If We Were Vampires”, for example, is one of the great love songs of our time, sure, but it’s built upon the unpleasant truth that, in nearly every couple, one partner will have to go on after the other’s passing.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected from Isbell’s latest, Weathervanes
, which, for the third straight effort, sees him joined by his backing band, the 400 Unit. Previous record Reunions
, while a strong effort in a vacuum, fell a bit short of the singer-songwriter’s typical lofty standards, while leaving his future direction wide open. Ultimately, I guess I’d envisioned another dose of potent songcraft backed by some good ole Southern-fried rock n’ roll. And, truth be told, that’s all here. But the prime takeaway from Weathervanes
is that Isbell’s music has never been grimmer - a surprising declaration, but true nonetheless.
Part of that assessment may simply be the album’s sprawling nature - topping off at thirteen songs and over an hour in duration. There’s only so many stories of despair, misery, and desperation which a listener can take, and their effect accumulates, especially when they’re as convincingly realized as these are. The subject matter of individual songs may run a gamut, but themes are near-universally downcast and distressing. “Death Wish” starts things off with its depiction of a suicidal partner, and while things might get a little less direct from then on, they rarely move into particularly sunlit pastures. “King Of Oklahoma” is a nice gritty country-rocker, but it’s also a visceral portrait of a life gone off the rails: crime, addiction, a broken family, you get the picture… There’s a palpable aura of danger throughout the track and, while the listener may get the feeling that ultimate responsibility for many (perhaps most) of the protagonist’s problems can be placed squarely on his own shoulders, nonetheless the song is crafted so excellently that there’s no choice but to empathize deeply. “Save The World”, meanwhile, is a wrenching exploration of a society gone mad through repeated gun violence (seemingly inspired directly by the Uvalde massacre), and of its psychic impacts on the narrator. Again, these topics don’t seem to have been selected for their joy-inducing qualities.
This isn’t to say that the entirety of Weathervanes
is unmitigated glumness. “Strawberry Woman”, for example, is rather upbeat, even if it’s a truly bittersweet listen, while “If You Insist” concentrates on the very human need for connection. “Cast Iron Skillet” sees Isbell’s songwriting at its most delicate, combining nostalgia-inducing folksy imagery with a sad portrayal of a family torn apart by unthinking bigotry - it’s a tearjerker, but undeniably beautiful as well. And “Vestavia Hills” is a richly-textured piece portraying a grizzled and world-weary veteran musician: while it’s not cheery stuff, it’s more contemplative than anything.
As a whole, I’d confidently slot Weathervanes
into the upper half of Isbell’s output, rivaling such worthy records as Something More Than Free
and The Nashville Sound
. At this point in a consistently great discography, a throwback comparison to Isbell’s perceived peak, Southeastern
, might feel unnecessary - but here I go. That album is full of heavy anecdotes, whether it’s the brutally stark portrayal of a friend with terminal cancer in “Elephant” or the story of (arguably justifiable) murder committed in “Yvette”, but it ends with “Relatively Easy”. It’s a song with lyrics that are anything but a cakewalk, but they’ve always seemed to me to be an attempt to put things into perspective, an acknowledgement that, after so many horrors of the world are cataloged throughout the record, one should still strive to focus on the positive while moving forward through life. That little ray of light has always made Southeastern
a substantially more approachable album for me, despite its overwhelming preponderance of tough-to-process concerns. Weathervanes
very much does not
follow this same strategy. Instead, closer “Miles'' is an emotional gut punch, tracking the slow poisoning of the relationship between a parent and his child. It’s a masterwork of a final statement, yes, an expansive rocker which approaches prog territory in construction, but the song rejects any attempt at encouragement, let alone salvation.
So yeah, Weathervanes
is a bit of a downer. Regardless, though, it’s Isbell’s reliably exceptional songwriting, the bursting-out-of-the-gate energy of the 400 Unit (just listen to the barnburner that is “When We Were Close”), and a talent for subtle but inescapable hooks which make the doom and gloom of these songs not only bearable, but rather inviting. The way Isbell howls out “I ain’t your volunteer” and lets the last word hang in the air on a certain late-album track will probably be stuck in your head for days, if you’re anything like me. Weathervanes
might be hella
depressing, but it’s part of a good lineage from Americana’s more sinister side - from Townes Van Zandt not just waiting around to die, from John Prine telling us about Sam Stone and Jesus dying for nothing (I suppose), from Bruce Springsteen driving a stolen car on a pitch black night. These songs might be (mostly) the soundtracks of people drifting at the fringes or sinking lower and lower and mourning everything they’ve lost, but Isbell shares it all with endless precision and skill, making us care (perhaps too much). We’re in good company.