With the critical success of Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s freshly sober 2013 album, it was inevitable that close attention would be paid to Something More Than Free. With this release, it’s safe to say that Jason Isbell has ‘made it’. The long-time cult darling became a critical darling, and with appearances on CBS Sunday Morning and Conan the critical darling is soon to become a mainstream one. But how would Isbell approach the magnifying glass that he was now under, the larger stages he was set to take?
Isbell’s approach to Something More Than Free is emblematic of the profound love of life he professed on Southeastern. It is at the same time fresh and carefully crafted: these are not songs for Jason Isbell, or songs for people who have been following Isbell since he was in his early twenties. These songs are for anyone who happens to hear them.
Though the 400 Unit, Isbell’s band, was featured on Southeastern they have a bigger role to play in Something More Than Free. The sound is warmer, fuller- building to crescendos and subtly reinforcing melodies with equal ease. These songs were carefully crafted by the band in the studio, aided by producer David Cobb (who worked on Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in addition to Southeastern), months before they were ever played live. Though there’s plenty of Isbell’s acoustic guitar, when you close your eyes and listen to the music you can almost see Gamble behind his drums nodding along, Hart grinning behind his bass, Vaden soloing with one foot on an amplifier, and Derry DeBorja hunched over his keys. This group of musicians have put in the work, and the craftsmanship of this album sounds effortless.
Most of Something More Than Free could play on the radio, with earnest everyman charm and eminently hummable music. The album opens with the chipper “If It Takes A Lifetime”, about a man who spent much of his life going full-throttle down the wrong path before sobering up and trying to get it together. No, it’s not about Isbell’s rock and roll past, but about a blue collar worker looking philosophically at the kind of man he wants to be, even if it takes him a lifetime to get there. These everyman (and everywoman) themes permeate the album: Isbell takes his talent for turning his insides out and applies it to the human condition at large. Whether you were in a cult-favorite rock band or staying put in your hometown, a crash and burn still feels like a crash and burn and getting your head right feels like waking up from fitful sleep. The glue that holds this record together is grit. Something More Than Free is Americana at its greatest: unifying, earnest, compassionate, and catchy as hell.
Something More Than Free is a collection of stories about people bearing down and doing what they need to do. “Flagship”, a quiet song featuring Amanda Shires singing with her husband, is about love’s desperate need to remain vital and sincere, the constant work needed to avoid stagnation and resentment. “Hudson Commodore” and “Children of Children” are both about the trials and tribulations of motherhood, about as serious and difficult an endeavor as any.
“I was riding on my mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn
And all the years I took from her, just by being born”
The anchor of the record is the title track, a plainspoken and sincere ballad. “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts/I’m just lucky to have the work” How many men and women have these thoughts or impulses, the knowledge that forward motion and doing their jobs are what they must do, their own personal form of worship to whatever powers may or may not exist? These people are the lifeblood of this country, of every country, and Isbell has written them a song without either patronizing them or pandering to them. Think of what is being glorified, what is being worshipped, on most songs played on the radio. How many of them feature lyrics as concrete s and uplifting as “My back is numb, my hands are freezing/What I’m working for is something more than free”
The record closes with “To A Band That I Loved”, a love letter to Centro-Matic. Centro-Matic was a band’s band who decided to amicably break up last year. They were an inspiration to many artists that we favor here at 9b; Glossary played their Nashville farewell show. Centro-Matic never appeared on network morning shows, was never featured in Rolling Stone. They worked hard, putting out 11 albums. They inspired musicians in general and Isbell specifically; when he was younger he played guitar with the band from time to time. His relationship with the band obviously affected him greatly, and their decision to leave the rock and roll life behind is a stark reminder that everything comes to an end. It’s what you do along the way that matters.
“Somehow I’m still out here burning my days
Your voice makes the miles melt away
I’ll be guarding your place in the lights on the stage in my heart
I guess we’re all still finding our part”
While Southeastern was a declaration of self, Something More Than Free feels like a declaration of purpose. Isbell is no longer an out of control youth, full of talent and wild energy, but this is not “A Study In Sobriety, Part 2”. Now he is a purposeful and determined man, setting about his work with precision and style in equal amounts. He focuses on his own feelings rather than in his own experience and has resolved to write music for people as purposeful and dedicated as himself, regardless of their circumstances or their place on their path. Working for the county, driving a cab, raising children, or singing for a living, we’re all still finding our part.
Something More Than Free is Essential Listening.