May 21, 2020

On Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's "Reunions", the Songs Feel Like Old Friends

On Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's "Reunions", the Songs Feel Like Old Friends

On Reunions, the latest record by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, finds the songwriter pushing himself in new sonic directions and writing songs about fear, anxiety, sobriety and being a parent. It all seems pretty standard for him, and I’ll probably listen to it forever. That’s the point.

Isbell’s ascended to a plane of ubiquity few songwriters reach. His songs are detached from a time and era and instead weave a larger tapestry. In essence, just like Tom Petty. No, this is not some review with a bloviated comparison calling Isbell “this generation’s Petty” – he’s not. Petty wrote pop songs, Isbell really doesn’t. But what I am saying is that you can pretty much throw a dart with either artist and find a song that in their catalog that you immediately may not be able to place on a particular album.

Perhaps that summary is a little cursory. Here’s an example: I heard “Chaos and Clothes” on the radio recently and I couldn’t place the record it was on. It was 2017’s The Nashville Sound, when I thought probably it was 2015’s Something More Than Free. Same with Tom Petty – off the top of your head, would you really know “Refugee” and “The Waiting” are on different records? Probably not. Both of these guys have catalogs that play like greatest hits collections.

Make no mistake, Reunions is a very good album, and Isbell’s most direct attempt at making album oriented rock. The stormy, sprawling opener “What’ve I Done to Help” is a near 7 minute showcase for the skillfulness of the 400 Unit as a band, full of Allman style guitar shifty organ and urgent percussion. David Crosby appears on background vocals, and it sets the tone for the record as something that maybe Crosby would have made 40 years earlier with his CSNY cohorts.

“Dreamsicle” brings things back to the familiar, Isbell’s baritone up front while he sings about the joys of being a kid in the face of some very adult issues. “Overseas” features searing, pained guitar. Isbell has been on the record saying the recording process for Reunions was tense, and you can almost feel that anxiety and frustration come out in his guitar. “Running With Our Eyes Closed” bubbles with a swampy intensity, while “River” is a beautiful piano-driven song with Amanda Shires sweet sounding fiddle. “It Gets Easier” is a song about Isbell’s hard-won sobriety, while “Letting You Go” is a heartstopping, gorgeous story about becoming a parent and watching your child growing up.

As a Jason Isbell, what do you want as a fan? You want good Jason Isbell songs. They’re here. Years from now, you’ll hear one of them somewhere and maybe you’ll fire up a Jason Isbell playlist. There will be the signature songs – “Cover Me Up”, “24 Frames”, “If We Were Vampires” and “Be Afraid” from this new album. Maybe you’ll get ambitious and listen to all of Southeastern the same way I’ll occasionally put on Damn The Torpedoes. Does it really matter, though? They’re no lesser quality, but you expect them that way. I’ll look forward to the next Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit record as I have every one prior: eagerly, unsurprised and comforted. That’s a compliment to the quality of his songs and songwriting.

Reunions is out now on Southeastern Records.