This is the collection of songs that terrestrial radio should be playing. Accessible to the masses, yet clever and emotionally charged. With Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell has again raised the bar for what it means to make a great record. His last effort was 2013’s Southeastern, a masterpiece on par with the greatest personal records of all time. Southeastern was momentous. With it, Isbell entered Act III of his illustrious career.
In Act I, he gave us the brash years. Isbell joined Drive-by Truckers at 22 years old and penned some of their most beloved songs to date, entering the scene like a bull with its horns aflame. Brash and cocky, but for good reason.
That relationship ended seemingly prematurely in 2007. But Act II proved that Isbell could hold his own. He and his incredible band, The 400 Unit, made three wonderful records whose highlights are songs that are now belted as drunken requests from passionate crowds. “Dress Blues,” “Codeine,” and “In a Razor Town” are just a small sampling of the greatness that is Jason’s second act.
Then he fell in love, and stopped drinking; and with a full heart and sober mind, Jason Isbell created a piece of art that set him apart from even the most talented and inspired songwriters of his generation and beyond. Act III began with what would be the climax for nearly any other artist. Southeastern was almost perfect, an imminently re-listenable work.
So what does Isbell have up his sleeve for a follow up? Nothing short of genius. Something More Than Free is a brilliant collection of songs that does not pretend to be from Acts I or II. It is an extension of Jason Isbell’s career, Act III, that balances the introspective and personal feel of Southeastern with the swagger of Acts I and II.
Something More Than Free opens with a country number (“It Takes a Lifetime”) that feels like a remastered Don Williams song as envisioned by Bruce Springsteen. It’s a tune that properly showcases Isbell’s soulful voice while remaining accessible.
The first single, “24 Frames,” follows on “If It Takes a Lifetime” ‘s heels and provides an instantly recognizable singalong that manages an analogy comparing God to a pipe bomb juxtaposed with a catchy hook. Isbell’s dexterity is on full display from the outset of the album.
Track three comes in like Southeastern on Prozac.
Baby let’s not ever get that way/I’ll drive you to the ocean every day,”
The rest of the album follows suit with Isbell giving us an evolved songwriter. Dave Cobb is at the producing helm for the second straight album. The two clearly enjoy a working rapport that few duos will ever achieve. The attention to detail for both is evident. They have used the best bits from all three acts of Isbell’s career to create a fresh sound that remains recognizable.
Isbell’s guitar playing gets its rightful place in the sun, especially on the jammy “Children of Children.” Its coda is soaring, orchestral, and a showcase of the multi-talented Isbell’s duality. The balance between Isbell’s guitar playing and his first rate vocals is well struck.
The album is well balanced, missing only a balls-to-the-wall rock n’ roll tune. But that’s why we go see Isbell and the 400 Unit live (Live Review). Jason gets the most from his songs in a “big ol’ rock club.” Cobb gets the most from a master, a form of wizardry in itself, on record.
Jason Isbell rose to the challenge on Something More Than Free. It is another special album from the world’s best songwriter (yes, we said it).
Jason Isbell Something More Than Free Album Review by Jason Earle.
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