On “The Nashville Sound”, Jason Isbell gets honest and takes country back.
Four lines into “Hope The High Road”, the Ryan-Adams-esque first single off Jason Isbell’s latest album with backing band The 400 Unit, Isbell openly makes a pretty heartfelt confession.
“I used to want to be a real man, now I don’t even know what that means”, he admits. It’s a pretty simple statement, but Isbell is submitting it to a genre which has become heavily inundated in recent years with “bro-country” glorifications of a specific and singular masculine ideology. Without declaring it outright, Isbell has placed himself at the forefront of a movement to reclaim country music in the name of humility, sincerity, and vulnerability. While the biggest names in the genre are busy attempting to cultivate an Instagram-filter version of the Everyman image, Isbell is the real deal: An artist willing to admit that being an Everyman means sharing the weaknesses and fears of Every Man.
Everything about Isbell’s latest album The Nashville Sound, is a celebration of country music, from the name to the jangly guitars. Although in places he borrows from his southern rock background, and the introspective track “Chaos and Clothes” could easily be mistaken for The Shins, Isbell is an unashamed believer in the heartfelt accessibility and populism of the country genre. It’s because of this honesty that Isbell’s protest songs work so well and cut so deep.
On “White Man’s World”, the album’s angriest and best track, Isbell confronts his own privilege and admonishes himself and his mostly-white-male fanbase for their self-centeredness. His admissions of guilt over laughing at racist jokes and his insistence that “there’s no such thing as another man’s war” don’t come off as contrived and hollow. The frustration in his voice infers a level of atonement, but not the namby-pamby Yankee version of atonement. It’s Southern atonement: The kind where you get good and mad.
Isbell has plenty to be mad about, too.
His opening tracks “Last of My Kind” and “Cumberland Gap” are both anthems of isolation — the former being the isolation of an individual and the latter referring to the isolation of a community. The echoing, reverberating chorus of Cumberland Gap posits that the gap itself “swallows you whole.” It’s the kind of honest take on the Southern narrative that Isbell is famous for: a track dedicated to exploring, but not excusing, the kind of desperation which lead Isbell’s forgotten kinfolk into Tea Party and Trumpism.
More than anything, The Nashville Sound feels like a gift for Isbell’s daughter — serving as some form of apology for bringing her into a world Isbell could never prepare her for. Much like the Fast and the Furious franchise, country music has its roots in the notion of family, and Isbell has no problem baring his soul about the not-always-positive emotions which come from it. On “Molotov”, ostensibly the album’s love song, he sings about the changes and compromises that come with falling in love. “Do you miss the girl you once had time to be?”, Isbell’s narrator asks his lover, another heartfelt admission that sometimes the American ideal of family requires personal sacrifice.
Isbell doesn’t shy away from gender discrepancies either, fully admitting the difficulties and impacts of the modern world hit his wife harder than they do him. He alludes to it when referring to his daughter on “White Man’s World”, noting that he didn’t know how rough the world would be on her “but your mother knew better.”
This is Isbell’s version of masculinity — a rejection of the “beer, trucks, and daisy dukes” mentality in favor of empathy, introspection and self-exploration. On tracks like “If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety”, he battles with existential fears and paints a picture of a man struggling with his mortality and fears. It’s real, raw, and relatable, especially as “Anxiety” builds a heavily-produced sound wall toward the end — just enough to put the listener in a state resembling the titular emotion.
The Nashville Sound works because it’s unabashedly honest .
Isbell speaks mainly from the perspective of a White Southern Boy who “got woke” during his travels in the big city and now feels like a man without a real home — and that’s exactly who he is. But by openly exploring that sense of extremely personal homelessness, he’s tapped into a sense of uncertainty that feels almost universal in 2017’s America. And Isbell isn’t subtle about the source of this confusion — “Last year was a sonofabitch for almost everyone we know” he concedes on Hope The High Road.
It’s been said repeatedly over the past year that at least the Trump era would Make Punk Music Great Again. Thus far, that’s proven untrue, but it has delivered the greatest country album in a near decade.