Album Review: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

Whether through personal experience or keen observation, Jason Isbell’s meteoric songwriting success is rooted in his ability to create an emotional bond between his lyrics and the listener. On his upcoming release, The Nashville Sound, Isbell proves yet again that his fingers are on the pulse of the issues that matter most–tolerance, inclusion, family, love, and heartbreak.

With the monumental success of his 2015 release Something More Than Free, Isbell needed to dig deep both lyrically and musically to rise to compete with the music community’s anticipation for his new works. Topically, Isbell touches on global and personal uncertainty of both now and the future;  musically, he returned to the core of his independent country twang by officially including his backing band, The 400 Unit, as the instrumental backbone of the album. Many of the songs are supported by the amazing Amanda Shires both vocally and on fiddle, and often I found those moments were what made the works complete. In recording The Nashville Sound, Isbell built a solid foundation, relying on traditions both in the Nashville musical landscape and within his prior successes. The album was recorded at the legendary RCA Studio A and features the production by Dave Cobb, who also produced Isbell’s Something More Than Free and Southeastern.  As a body of work, The Nashville Sound is smoothly recorded yet somehow retains an organic feel that adds an inspired feel to Isbell’s songs.

Whether contemplative or fuming, the album is at its best when Isbell and The 400 Unit has it set at slow burn twang. Album opener “Last of My Kind” spins a tale of nostalgic loneliness set over building acoustic guitar, later met with the addition of dusty drums near the song’s end. “Chaos and Clothes” lets upbeat, almost playful guitar duel with the underlying broken-hearted message, and adds a unique dynamic to the album with Isbell’s double-tracked vocals. “Something to Love” presents a dichotomy of apprehension for the future with a twist of loving optimism. Somehow the addition of Shire’s harmonies reassure, and make us feel that everything will be alright.

The Nashville Sound diverges from its more gentle sounds on “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope the High Road,” bringing back glimpses of Isbell the rocker.  The album’s true stylistic divergence shines with “Anxiety,” which has all of the musical makings of an epic banger, complete with tense acoustic and electric guitar-blended solos and aching vocals. It is in this song, while tiptoeing the line between brash rock n’ roll and roots-rock country, that Isbell showcases the diversity of the true sounds of the album namesake, Nashville.

It’s as if Isbell was told what he couldn’t do and then set out to prove that person wrong: “You can’t make country music that sounds like that,” “You shouldn’t make songs about politics,” “You shouldn’t be so blunt with your lyrics–you’re talking about feelings.”  With The Nashville Sound, Isbell continues to forge his own path while crafting relevant songs to touch many lives.

Purchase The Nashville Sound, out June 16th via Southeastern Records: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-nashville-sound/id1216344634

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George Maifair

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