Americana artists are a dime a dozen. The field is as crowded as that of the 2016 GOP hopefuls, and sometimes it can feel just as stodgy and unimaginative. How long can a genre go back to the well of its influences – the cadences and inflections of poor black and white rural people – and keep drawing water worth drinking?
This question might haunt me, but it doesn’t haunt Jason Isbell. He can now be called a veteran singer and writer of songs about hard, seldom-sober Southern living. Compared to his devastating Southeastern and his work fronting the 400 Unit, Something More Than Free sounds a little more comfortable, a little less close to the edge of something tragic. The opener, “If It Takes A Lifetime,” just about assaults you with its stubbornly sunny outlook. Subsequent tracks dip into a thinking-man’s melancholy, but there’s no “Cover Me Up” or “Cigarettes and Wine” here to get you to think about dialing the hotline. Real-life sobriety and marital stability seem to have dulled that particular edge, though I doubt Isbell misses it much.
It’s hard to decide what it is that raises Isbell above the riffraff. His voice is certainly pretty, but maybe almost too much so; I am startled by the number of moments when Jackson Browne comes to mind. The arrangements are equally pretty and clean, standard super-pro roots-rock that rarely sounds anything but conventional. And lyrically, this album is his most Springsteenian: almost every song inhabits a different down-and-out persona fumbling toward redemption. “Speed Trap Town” is a fine example, the tale of a small-town state trooper’s son who longs for escape and wonders “if there’s nothin’ left that can’t be left behind.” The title track is another one straight from the playbook, but unlike in “Speed Trap Town,” its narrator has few distinguishing details; he’s every working stiff who is just sensitive enough to observe, “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts.” Its folksy platitudes (“a hammer finds a nail / and a freight train needs a rail”) are punctuated by weepy fiddle and plodding rhythm guitar. Like “Simple Man” or “Okie From Muskogee,” it loses its working-class cred by protesting a little too much. It’s a songwriting tradition worth retiring, and one of Isbell’s rare misses.
The good news is, almost every other song on the album is immeasurably more interesting, revealing Isbell’s deep gifts and appeal. Take “The Life You Chose,” an open letter to an old flame in the vein of Bruce’s “Bobby Jean.” And take this irresistible couplet: “I got lucky when we finished school / Lost three fingers to a faulty tool.” Those few well-chosen words say more than a whole playlist full of generic anthems. He puts on a similar clinic in vivid, telling details in song after song. “Flagship” paints its setting, a crumbling seaside hotel, masterfully. “Children of Children” puts us right in the head of its speaker, the product of an unwanted teen pregnancy who’s grown up to perpetuate the cycle. And “24 Frames” has recently been ruining indie radio listeners’ days with its choruses, including this final variation: “You thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s sitting in a black car ready to go / You made some new friends after the show but you’ll forget their names / In 24 frames.”
Isbell can still write grit and decadence with authority, but the fact that he’s not in his darkest hour has freed him up to make his broadest album. The last three tracks cover swaths of emotional ground and show us a songwriter who, lucky for us, isn’t done growing up. “Hudson Commodore” eschews the first-person altogether and focuses warmly on its subject, a heroine of family lore who was a feminist long before the word. “Palmetto Rose,” the album’s ambitious crescendo, manages to merge blues shuffle and sea shanty and end up awash in strings, all while the singer breezily schools us on that which is sweet and ugly about the South. If it’s over the top, it’s the song on this album that’s unlike any you’ve heard this year, and well worth a handful of listens. Consider the awful mess that has been South Carolina of late, and the song grows deeper still.
Then the bare acoustic closer, “To A Band That I Loved” (the band being Denton, Texas-based Centro-Matic) feels like Isbell stepping out from behind the curtain of these artful, theatrical numbers. In a way, it also completes a triptych of songs about heritage, a theme very much on this writer’s mind. If our “roots” are a concept we often consume a bit too uncritically – passing up the hard work of inheritance for the easy comfort of nostalgia – Isbell is proving himself to be the right kind of heir.