Where Is Your Masterpiece? Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Eponymous Release
Last Tuesday, Lightning Rod Records released a recording I had been eagerly awaiting: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. While it’s not the first disc featuring tunes written exclusively by Isbell—that distinction goes to Sirens of the Ditch, a release credited only to the singer, guitarist and pianist—it does constitute a second coming of age for Isbell.
As has been the case several times over the last couple of years, his was music introduced to me by my friend Jenny. Through her, I first got to know him as a member of the Drive By Truckers (DBT), a group most of whose members hail from the Muscle Shoals/Quad Cities area of Alabama. That relatively small area looms large in the history of popular music, for many celebrated albums and songs—among them portions of Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and Lady Soul, The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Bob Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”—were recorded there or featured musicians from the area (like Spooner Oldham, who’ll be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 4 April). As a number of writers have observed, one distinctive thing about the area was the way that black and white musicians freely borrowed from and collaborated with one another. (For a more lengthy exploration of the so-called Muscle Shoals sound, read/listen to this 2003 NPR feature.)
One night a few years or so ago, Jenny was playing a game with me that was a frequent staple of our time hanging out: she’d put on music she liked to see whether I could identify it, and, in those cases where I couldn’t, she’d delight at being able to turn me on to something I didn’t know. On that night, she played several tracks from DBT’s The Dirty South (2004). Two songs in particular struck just the right chords for me: “Danko/Manuel” (named for members of The Band) and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” both composed by Isbell. Those tracks introduced me to a skilled songwriter, one possessing a deep understanding of the intricacies of rock, country and R&B, a gift for narrative lyrics and the sure hands of a top-notch lead guitarist.
All three of the traits outlined previously are in evidence Isbell’s first solo outing, the aforementioned Sirens… (2007). In tracks like “Try,” “Chicago Promenade,” “Dress Blues” and “Grown” (which follow one another, in that order), one can hear the variety in the arrangements and the vocal expressivity that characterize his work. From the soulful rock of the first of those tracks to the Hammond-organ supported melancholy of the second, the country trappings of the third, and the straight-rocking of the fourth, Isbell seems to go from strength to strength. (You can stream all four plus the others on the disc from Isbell’s MySpace page.)
The story of how I learned of Isbell’s work and came to love this album has one more stage. Last fall, Jenny informed me that Isbell and company were close to finishing work on a new album; she also told me that they’d be playing a show here in Chicago on Halloween. That night, I arrived at the Beat Kitchen an hour too early and spent too long in a room filled with costumed adults reliving/revisiting their childhoods. When Jenny arrived, I was invited upstairs to meet the band and learned that they, too, were going to be in costume. In the picture included here, they are, from left to right, guitarist Browan Loller wearing a top hat and bending down; keyboardist Derry deBorja with a fake mustache (whose plaid shirt is faintly visible); Isbell wearing a bright suit, a plastic wig and fake mustache; drummer Chad Gamble in a mullet wig; and bassist Jimbo Hart with pale makeup and another outlandish, Tina-Turner-like wig. (Click here for a larger image.) Before the set was half over, the costumes were coming off, and the band was getting down to work—playing songs from Isbell’s DBT days, from Sirens… as well as tracks from the now new release.
And what a brilliant release it is.
In retrospect, Isbell’s work with DBT was an introduction for and revelation to me, and his first solo disc was confirmation of the promise I’d heard. This latest album, though, could be his ascendant release, the one that introduces him to a wider, discerning public. The album features the personnel depicted above with one exception (thanks, Jenny): the drummer on the recording is Matt Pence, perhaps better-known for his work with Centro-matic and South San Gabriel. The album starts with “Seven-Mile Island,” a study in energetic texture and rhythm, along with the signature narrative lyricism. It then drops beautifully into “Sunstroke.” Once again, there’s a subtle Hammond B3 sound padding out the proceedings, and there are plaintive lyrics taking everything up a several levels, especially in the glorious build near the track’s end:
Tell me you walk on the water now,
but I know who showed you the stones.
Here it is morning for some folks
and twilight for those of us left,
who give up the dangers of sunstroke
and make little fools of themselves.
I need some things to look forward to.
Maybe these colors will fade.
I never meant to get bored with you,
but I never meant to stay.
And so it goes for the remainder of the “first side” of the album, rounded out initially by “Cigarettes and Wine” and “However Long.” In differing ways, those tracks, again, reveal Isbell and the band’s many gifts. Lyrically, the former is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, while the latter, rocking, more uptempo and filled with Biblical allusions and repetitions of the words “I ain’t afraid no more,” is more optimistic—“’however long the night, the dawn will break again.” The preliminary coup-de-grâce, though, comes with that side’s closing track “Coda.” While it at first sounds like a bonafide side-ender (perhaps a premature album-ender), it turns out to be a prelude to side two. The track is an ostinato-based study in texture, with layered guitar parts thickening and complicating matters before a fade intervenes to foment uncertainty.
Indeed, the track that opens the second side continues the Biblical imagery (“Don’t roll away that stone, girl”)—with the words propelled this time by some crisp, tasteful rhythm section work from Pence, Hart and deBorja. From there, the album grows more expansive: the classic Muscle Shoals R&B sound, complete with the faux, Stylistics-like sitar and horns of “No Choice in the Matter,” the cathartic, anthemic rock of “Soldiers Get Strange,” the stop-start lyricism and tunefulness of “Streetlights” and the apparent, but only apparent, irony of the title “The Last Song I Will Write” (it better not be, Mr. Isbell) make for an illuminating listen.
While there are already a couple of contenders, I’d be shocked were I not to include this disc on my 2009 Best-Of list. Those of you who’ve dug other discs that I have championed here may need some time to adjust. But take it. Every single moment. This one, if it doesn’t hit you immediately, will grow and grow, such that you’ll have to force yourself to listen to something else. If that’s not the mark of a stellar album, I’d love to know what could be…
(Thanks, again, to Jenny for many useful corrections, clarifications, and suggestions—including this link to an extended promotional interview with Isbell on the making of the disc.)