Album Review: Jason Isbell ‘Something More Than Free’
The easiest way for Jason Isbell to record a follow-up record to his 2013 masterpiece Southeastern would have been to continue writing songs on his own personal experiences, the struggles with drugs and alcohol and personal relationships. He could have returned to his own past, continuing to wallow in the situations that brought him to the point where he needed personal redemption. And why not? It led to the creation of one of the best albums of this century.
But Isbell wanted to make something different. Something More Than Free is the result. Is it different from Southeastern? Absolutely. Better? As much as I (and many others) wanted to manage our expectations before Something More Than Free was released because Southeastern was such a music tour de force, I made myself realize that there was no need to compare the two. It's simply not fair. If you asked Isbell he would tell you he prefers the life he lives now to the one he lived before, with the experiences that led him to write Southeastern.
“I realized I’d told my own story so much that I needed another story,” Isbell told Paste magazine. “That happens to a lot of songwriters when they get into their 30s. They’ve written so much about themselves that they’ve got nothing left to say. When I made Southeastern, I was still uncomfortable in my skin. I didn’t have to look for something to write about; I just threw up on the page, though I did go back and do a lot of editing. I decided I didn’t want this one to be so self-centered. So I had to go look for things to write about.”
Something More Than Free is Isbell telling the stories of other people. It might be based on someone he knows, a conversation he heard, or a character he simply created from an initial idea. That's not easy. Much harder than writing and singing about your own life and experiences. He writes from perspectives you don't see too often in popular music. Rather than write about parties, drinking, tight blue jeans and jacked-up trucks, Isbell takes on the guy who hates his job ("If It Takes a Lifetime"), the small town where everyone knows each other's business ("Speed Trap Town"), or the person full of sorrow and regret ("24 Frames").
But Something More Than Free accomplishes more than being a great album. It serves as a transition from personal prison to freedom for Isbell -- Southeastern was his ascension out of his personal hell and Something More Than Free is the new world he's experienced since. In the matter of two years he can take on two completely different records based on completely different situations and produce two mind-blowing pieces of art that tell some of the best stories in music. It's a trait you don't find in many songwriters, and it's further proof that Isbell is way ahead of his counterparts in the country, rock and Americana scenes.
It's what makes him this generation's Bob Dylan.
You'd be hard-pressed to find an artist in recent memory who has released back-to-back records that can stand up to Southeastern and Something More Than Free. Isbell once found himself in darkness, created an album for the ages, and now he's fully emerged into freedom and has created a piece of art that should be heard by all.
The line in the opening track, "If It Takes a Lifetime," is the testament of that: "My day will come, if it takes a lifetime."