Jason Isbell’s new music taking on a more rock-flavored feel
Life is clearly good for Jason Isbell. Since embracing sobriety five years ago, his career has seen an upward trajectory with a string of critically and commercially acclaimed albums that have won him Grammys and Americana Music Honors & Awards.
Isbell’s personal life has blossomed as well. He and Amanda Shires were married by fellow musician Todd Snider in February 2013, and the couple’s daughter, Mercy Rose, was born on Sept. 1, 2015. The guy even gave up smoking several months ago.
And now the Alabama native has released “The Nashville Sound,” his sixth solo record that finds him once again working with producer Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings/Sturgill Simpson).
Concertgoers can expect to hear the new songs on tour, including a stop Jan. 29 at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall, and Isbell is pleased that his recent success has allowed him to reinvest in enhancing the visual production of his show. He’s also happy that “The Nashville Sound” is giving his show a boost in energy. Both “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free” were fairly restrained musically, but on the new album, Isbell and the 400 Unit organically found the music taking on a more rock-and-roll-flavored feel.
“I think there are more rock songs on this record than we’ve had in the past and that’s just a happy accident,” Isbell says. “I used to set out to do that and then I realized that’s not the way to do it. My best bet is to write the best songs that I can and not think about it any further than that. But, I got lucky here with some rock-and-roll songs on this album. So I think it’s going to be a louder and more up-tempo show than we’ve had for the past couple of records.”
If his 2013 album, “Southeastern,” was about getting sober and 2015’s “Something More Than Free” reflected Isbell’s new clarity, who’s to say “The Nashville Sound” isn’t about the path going forward? The 38-year-old singer-songwriter won’t dispute that notion.
“I didn’t come up with it, but I don’t disagree with that,” he says with a laugh in a recent phone interview. “I stay away from that — what does this record mean and all that kind of stuff? That’s not for the creator to come up with. What I try to do is make every individual song as tight and as correct as humanly possible.”
While his most recent records have been credited to Isbell alone, this latest effort has his longtime crew the 400 Unit front and center, not only on the album cover, but throughout the proceedings. Shires also makes her contributions known, particularly on “Anxiety,” a composition that addresses the effects of mental illness.
This rare co-writing situation was something Isbell felt necessary in order to capture the nuances of this malady, particularly how people suffering from it also have to grapple with other peoples’ perceptions of what they’re going through.
“I don’t have a clinically diagnosed anxiety issue or these sort of crippling attacks where I can’t function,” Isbell says. “But I did want to cover that and represent that aspect of things in the song. So I went to my wife, who has more experience with that kind of stuff and we co-wrote that song. I wanted to be specific and describe people’s experiences when they have these sort of moments where they’re disconnected from reality and things get overwhelming.”
One of the more pointed cuts on the new effort is “White Man’s World,” in which Isbell approaches that third rail of race. It’s the kind of self-examination that explores the notion of white privilege, a conversation many people are not willing to have.
“You have to come at those things with a little bit of courage because it’s hard to write about race for anybody,” Isbell says. “In the process of documenting my own life, teaching myself some things and maybe trying to present big questions musically to myself, I wanted to question my role and job in all of this. How do I keep myself aware? How do I keep myself as conscious as possible of the fact that I’m given opportunities that other people aren’t necessarily given? … My goal with this song, as much as anything else, was really just to suggest that it might be a good idea to evaluate your own particular role and attempt to make things better in tiny increments.”
Dave Gil de Rubio is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.