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Jason Isbell's 'Something More Than Free' Rings With The Promise of Joy


This FRESH AIR. Jason Isbell has a new album, his first since his widely praised 2013 record, "Southeastern." Since that time, Isbell has toured the country extensively with his band, the 400 Unit, and his wife, Amanda Shires, a violinist, singer and songwriter. Rock critic Ken Tucker says "Something More Than Free" finds Isbell exploring a wider range of subject matter and musical styles.


JASON ISBELL: (Singing) Who are you? You're not the one I met on a July night before the channel went wet (ph). Jack and Coke in your mama's car. You were reading "The Bell Jar."

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That song, "The Life You Chose," typifies much of the music on Jason Isbell's new album, "Something More Than Free." A medium tempo composition with instrumentation that clears space for Isbell's voice and lyrics to be heard clearly, the song rewards close listening. Isbell sings about meeting up with a woman he used to be in love with and now is mostly in love with the memory of what they had together. It's a song that's carefully packed with details - remembering what they used to drink and what book she was reading, admitting to living in nostalgia even as he genuinely wonders about the life she leads, with the implication that he's not quite living the one he wanted. It's a beauty of a song in an album filled with beauties.


ISBELL: (Singing) When I get home from work, I'll call up all my friends and we'll go bust up something beautiful we'll have to build again. When I get home from work, I'll wrestle off my clothes and leave them right inside the front door 'cause nobody's home to know. You see, a hammer finds a nail and a freight train needs the rails, and I'm doing what I'm on this earth to do. I don't think on why I'm here or where it hurts. I'm just lucky to have the work. Sunday morning, I'm too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.

TUCKER: Isbell's past as a member of the rock band the Drive-By Truckers now seems a lifetime ago. The new album comes across most often like some combination of folk music and the kind of country albums made in the 1970s by singer-songwriters like Roger Miller, Tom T. Hall and the pre-outlaw Willie Nelson. There's an emphasis on the lyrics. Isbell is a compulsive storyteller, and yet he avoids elaborate word play or literary pretensions. Instead, he tucks in small phrases that do the work of long prose paragraphs, as when the narrator of "To A Band That I Loved" says, I was 22 backwoods years old, a mini sentence that compresses William Faulkner with the short stories of Denis Johnson.


ISBELL: (Singing) Though everyone tried to ignore us, we'd scared them all off by the chorus. And there you stood looking proud, what was left of the crowd at our show, and I was 22 backwoods years old. You were singing that night by yourself, and I thought I was the only one left from an old southern town, new ideas bouncing 'round in my head. And I thought everyone like me was dead.

TUCKER: As a chunk of music with words, the song that leaps out of this album most eagerly is "24 Frames." The title refers to the speed at which celluloid film unspools through a projector. And, as if describing a film to someone who hasn't seen it, Isbell's verses offer impressionistic details about lives in distress and despair, even as the melody and the surging music of his band, the 400 Unit, make everything sound absolutely wonderful.


ISBELL: (Singing) This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing, and this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she gave to you back when you didn't own a beautiful thing. And this is how you make yourself call your mother, and this is how you make yourself closer to your brother, remember him back when he was small enough to help you see. You thought God was an architect, now you know he's something like a fireball ready to blow, and everything you built, it's all for show, goes up in flames in 24 frames.

TUCKER: Where his previous album contained a lot of contemplation about the serious trickiness of leading a sober life, "Something More Than Free" is a collection of songs about how the narrator is freed from the bondage of self so that he can be of better use to other people. The music may frequently be quiet, but it as often as not rings with the promise of joy.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Jason Isbell's new album, "Something More Than Free." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Don Winslow, author of "The Cartel," his second novel about the Mexican drug wars. One of the main characters is based on El Chapo, the drug kingpin who just escaped from a Mexican prison. Our critic, John Powers, described the new novel as a superb history of the cartels and those out to stop them. We'll also talk about the years Winslow spent as a private eye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.