Every six months I compile a list of what I consider are the top ten songs and top ten albums released in that period. Each June and December I tend to write something fairly in depth about what I consider the best album release was in the preceding six months… and for me, the best release between July and December of 2015 was this album. Jason Isbell found his way onto Rolling Stone’s top albums list, he also showed up on Double J’s list (here in Australia) and I’ve just found he’s also on No Depression’s list – I’m sure he’s on many others, too. Regardless, though, it’s fair to say that he’s done a bloody good job with his album ‘Something More Than Free’.
(I originally wrote this review over three parts… and here they are)
‘Something More Than Free’ is an album about me. Well, not ‘me’ – rather ‘you’. But saying it’s about you suggests I know you well enough to know all of your fears, struggles, defeats, victories, plans, memories, dreams and goals. Naturally I don’t know what yours are, only what mine are – but Jason Isbell does, and he’s going to tell you all about them in minute detail on this opus magnum.
I always like to compare albums which make my lists to a classic album which I’ve loved unconditionally over the years if I can, and this one is no exception. The album I choose to measure this one by is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’. While Isbell’s recordings are with a full band and more painstakingly produced there’s the same cast of characters that Bruce delved into, in fact it’s hard not to imagine a passing of the baton from Bruce to Jason in some songs, perhaps the law man father of Isbell’s ‘Speed Trap Town’ as sung about by his neglected son is Joe Roberts from Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’ – we’re just picking his story up 33 years later as he lies in a hospital bed after a heart attack brought on by a lifetime of dwelling on whether he did the right thing by letting his brother flee to Canada, as he was doing when we last visited him.
You can speculate about whose story Isbell is furthering, but ultimately it’s yours. It’s your story and the human condition that keeps us all moving forwards with nothing but hope in our collective hearts and raised expectations of ourselves upon our shoulders. Whether we use the same words as Isbell or not, the only reason we have for being on this planet is that we believe our day will come ‘if it takes a lifetime’ – will it? Who knows, but according to a recent episode of ‘Fargo’ knowing we’ll all die some day makes life, in the words of one French philosopher ‘absurd’. Our journey towards our goal (that day that Isbell says we’re waiting on while we’re ‘hell bent on growing up’) is spent running towards things we thought we were running from, it’s spent drifting too far from shore and forgetting our roots by getting ‘too far from our raising’. Yet we’re still grounded by our work, relationships and dreams ‘cos ‘working for the County keeps me pissing clear’.
But time rolls on, and it rolls on too fast. This second track came in at number 4 on my songs list, ’24 Frames’ reminding you that things move quickly. Hang on to the things and the people you love while you can, because soon it’ll all be yesterday’s news. Maybe that’s why Jason tells us on the previous track that he ‘fights the urge to live inside [his] telephone’. George Harrison told us that life goes on within you and without you and this song is all about making sure you live in the now and enjoy what you have while you have it. It reminds you of the saying which goes something like ‘yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery and today is a gift’ maybe Robin Williams put it even simpler ‘carpe diem’. Listen to St. Jason, ‘make yourself call your mother’, realise that you’ll forget the names of your new friends before you know it and that ‘everything you build is just for show’.
‘Are you taking your grown up dose?’ asks Jason Isbell around the mid-point of the album. He’s started off by telling us how things should be. How we should be approaching our lives. Work hard, be good to your mother and enjoy it while you can…. But maybe it isn’t that easy…. How do we do it, Jason? Tell us! Do we just need to grow up?
We all get old. I suppose one consolation is that everything and everyone else gets old, too. Maybe some of your friends will be with you for life, or maybe you’ll just eventually forget their names – that’s the takeaway message from the previous track ’24 Frames’. But maybe that’s supposed to happen sometimes, sometimes you need to ‘decide if there’s anything that can’t be left behind’. Maybe you need to accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives as Bing Crosby told us. John Lennon told us that ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’, what if we’re meant to move on from some things? What if we need to keep one eye to the future to avoid becoming mired in a rut and trapped ‘in the bluegrass states’?
‘Flagship’ is about your relationships and the people you have them with, but more specifically it’s about those people and relationships whose spark has gone. It’s about all the evidence showing you need to move on, but ignoring it and instead opting for safety – or perhaps hope, hope that things will get better. To use Isbell’s metaphor of an old hotel ‘the lights down in the lobby, they don’t shine. They just flicker while the elevator whines.’ Familiarity breeds contempt etc. etc. but that’s what the singer wants to avoid, he’s trying to fight the passage of time by hanging on to things he knows he should give up, the things which are ultimately going to hold him back, anchor him to a life he doesn’t want (even if he thinks he does) because ‘you’ve gotta try to keep yourself naive’. He’ll cancel all the plans he’s ever made, he just wants things to stay the way they are. All the while he watches a couple at the next table going through all the same things as he is, he sees all the same signs yet he refuses to think they’re living the same story, ‘baby let’s not ever get that way’ he says as he laments that there are a ‘few too many years on this hotel’ – yep, ‘she used to be a beauty, you can tell’ but not anymore.
You need to forget, but ‘How To Forget’? Well, for starters ‘get her out of here’, or as George Costanza said ‘right off!’ The singer has realised the folly of his ways in the previous song. He’s moved on and the relationship in ‘Flagship’ is over. But he feels adrift, he needs someone to reassure him he’s done the right thing for everybody concerned, he’d especially like that reassurance from his ex – ‘have a seat, have a drink, tell the jury what you think, was I good to you?’ The physical move is easy. Billy Joel taught us that in ‘Movin’ Out’, but Billy didn’t teach us to move on mentally. I’m not saying Isbell is teaching us anything here but he feels what we all have at some point. He doesn’t have a solution, though he clearly admires the problem and unlike a Roy Orbison song (which could go either way) we don’t get a resolution, just the chance to relive the angst, confusion and buyer’s remorse associated with change.
But sometimes moving on isn’t a choice. Sometimes you really are stuck in a corner. ‘Children of Children’ starts with some nice acoustic Neil Young stylings as Isbell points us in the direction of small-town America, though really it could be anywhere. The nameless town that people never escape from. Just like The Eagles told us, ‘you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave’. Isbell wants us to know about the endless cycle of limited education, teenage parents and living and working farmland or the family business. There are ‘five full generations living all these expectations’ and nobody achieves their enlightenment until after they’re trapped by family, space, time and responsibility because ‘seventeen ain’t old enough to reason with the pain’. The ‘Children of Children’ don’t do anything about it because their parents didn’t do anything about it and their parents’ parents didn’t do anything about it. They owe everything they have (however little it may be) to the preceding generation and it’s their duty to endure and keep the fire burning because their forebears did the same. They’re reminded of the time when they ‘were riding on [their] mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn, and all the years [they] took from her just by being born.’ If that’s not a guilt trip I don’t know what is.
Maybe The Eagles were right and you should just check out. Sylvia Plath did, and here we are on the next track ‘reading The Bell Jar’, drinking ‘Jack and Coke in your momma’s car’ an allegory to the final act of its author perhaps. The question remains and is asked many times throughout the song. ‘Are you living the life you chose or the life that chose you?’ In context of the above songs (now I’ve written about them) this song is decidedly dark. It points at the generation from the previous track as being ‘always lonely, never quite alone’. But that’s who populates this album. People who are not achieving their potential, people who could do more and be more. Jason points out that sure, every one of us in 2015 is on the ground and the referee’s counting but you’ve still got two choices, you can stay down or you can pick yourself up and keep moving forwards. As long as you pick yourself up more times than you get knocked down you’ll survive – and in America right now it’s all about survival. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that the lower class and the middle class have the same buffer to protect them if they lose their jobs or get sick. None. But whether your life chose you or you chose it, it’s reality, baby… deal with it and get up! Not even losing ‘three fingers to a faulty tool’ will keep the singer of the song down, though – it’s a wake-up call if anything and he’s out of here, ready to live a life of his choosing.
… and that life is a tough one, but it can be a rewarding one, too. The album’s title track tells us that it’s great to be free, that everybody in the developed world can be free… but it’s even better to be free and be part of society all at once. Maybe ‘work’ means gainful employment, or maybe it refers to the fact that to enjoy the benefits of modern society you need to be prepared to put up with some of the costs. Whether the words are metaphors or not the essential thing is that you live your life and remind yourself, as the singer says, not to ‘think of why I’m here or where it hurts, I’m just lucky to have the work’.
So anyway, I’ve spent the previous 2 tomes about Isbell’s ‘Something More Than Free’ analysing what he’s singing about, saying it’s all about him having insights into what everybody else’s life is like. The reality is that he writes about the human condition and the fact we all have hopes, dreams and disappointments. I went back to his previous album and found some other great tunes, ‘Travelling Alone’ is just wonderful, and ‘Super 8’ is a fun track which I’ve somehow come across before – It doesn’t look like there are any covers that I’d have seen so it must have been in a movie or a TV show at some point. But ‘Something More Than Free’ is just the complete package, no weak spots at all. No filler.
I talked before about ‘Speed Trap Town’ and the possible continuance of Springsteen’s ‘State Trooper’, but even with that lead-in and knowing nothing about Americana you may struggle to sing along without a lump forming in your throat because it’s not about just living in a small town, it’s about loss, family and the decisions we all need to make sometimes, as The Clash asked ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’. ‘Hudson Commodore’ continues the idea of chances missed from a focus on duty and downright being stuck in a life you didn’t choose thanks to the great depression and a brood of children – but the grass is of course always greener on the other side of the fence. The protagonist’s goal here is to just ride in a ‘Hudson Commodore’ and enjoy the trappings of wealth, safety and security which must clearly flow to anybody able to afford one – the car ceased production in 1952, so of course we’re left to wonder if she ever got what she wanted… as with all of Isbell’s stories, though, we’ll never find out.
I Googled details of what a Hudson Commodore is, I mean you listen to the song and you realise it’s clearly something pretty fancy. It’s obviously a euphemism… and then you get to ‘Palmetto Rose’. I had to Google that one, too. Apparently it’s a woven rose which southern ladies would give to their true love to keep them safe during the civil war. The war talked about here is the ‘war that we rage to get up every day’, is that the euphemism? The Palmetto Rose being the support from your significant other as you fight the day-to-day challenges of life in America’s south or your daily grind. ‘It’s the ladies I love and the law that I hate’ – is this once again a telling of the desire for freedom and being tied to your supports that echoes the words throughout the entire album?.. after all even ‘a freight train needs the rails’. I can’t help but think people listening to this song in places like Charleston would get more out of this track than I do sitting here in Cairns, but sometimes you need to make an effort to understand the subject matter.
‘To A Band That I Loved’ is a nice, quiet tune to finish off a brilliant album. This track reminds us that it’s always darkest before the dawn and gives us a glimmer of hope moving forwards, because after a slew of songs about being trapped and needing to leave your home and everybody you know the singer reminds us that out of the blue you can meet/get/go someone/something/somewhere which makes you exclaim that ‘I thought everyone like me was dead’ and perhaps with a poorly drafted analogy he offers the prayer to the listener ‘may you find what you gave, all that hope, somewhere down at the end of your rope’.
All I can really add about this album is the idea that if you haven’t listened to it yet, you go and do so right now….