The first time I listened to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the newest release from ex-Drive-By Truckers guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, I have to admit, I wasn't all that impressed. At first listen, I thought his latest record lacked the fire of his first solo release, 2007's Sirens In The Ditch. But headphones don't lie. It wasn't until I gave the record another chance, sitting at my desk at work with my headphones on, that the beauty, power, and stunning grace of the record readily became apparent. Songs like "Sunstroke" and "Cigarettes and Wine" are slow simmers, songs you need to be immersed in for them to take hold. Much like the south where Isbell hails from.
I don't want to saddle Isbell with the same agenda that Trucker's captain Patterson Hood seems to push - the whole "dichotomy of the southern thing" deal, which is charming and lends his songs a kind of launching point for understanding. Isbell doesn't seem to be making such a claim or even functioning from trying to explain how or why the south works. Rather, he just seems to be writing about what he sees, where he lives, what those people do. It's not clear how much of the characters on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are from Jason Isbell's own life, and how many have just been observed or created, but they all feel real. Which makes the record feel real, dirty and gritty.
The album also rocks harder, but in a more subtle way. "However Long," "Good," and "Soldiers Get Strange" all have a fiery burn. This isn't Truckers-style stomp, but a more relaxed, bluesier sound. I recall when the record first came out, the first review I read of it was on the Onion's A.V. Club, where the folks who comment get a little rowdy, there's a thousand trolls, and most people either act like hipsters or make fun of acting like hipsters. The greatest stone thrown at the new record was that it wasn't as good as the DBT's, or as good as Isbell's first record, or wasn't alt-country enough. Someone compared Isbell to Ryan Adams, but only to say we already had one Ryan Adams, and he's a better songwriter, and this kind of music wasn't good enough to need competitors. And they all seemed to lack the clarity of thought that might had come with time - with giving a record time.
Sometimes I review new records a month or more after their release. Sometimes it's much more than that. Some records take longer to get comfortable with. And, to me, that's an accomplishment by artist, to make an album that isn't just an immediate pay off, but one that grows on you and has a life of its own. Some records are about impact - but Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is a sleeper. Isbell's new record is also a keeper.
Isbell chooses to end the record with "The Last Song I Will Write," a slow burning ballad with some nice guitar work and some lingering, floating instruments in the solo break, and Isbell's typical everyman lyrical understanding. It's as good as some of the great songs he wrote while in the Drive-By Truckers. And it's great in its own right, too. A perfect closer, it manages to capture the entire feel of the album, as well as Isbell's career so far, and looks to the promise of more to come (or so we hope - I certainly hope it isn't the last song he will write, nor think that it should be). The warmth and fire of the whole record is brought home by the song's coda, ringing out with crashing cymbals and warm, earthy guitars and organ.
Much like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's tales of lovers wronged, work to be done, and everyday people, Isbell has a long way yet to go to establish himself as a premier songwriter and performer in today's musical climate. Thankfully, though, with records like this one, it'll be more of a matter of getting heard, rather than creating great material. Because albums like this one are keepers.
Now if the tour would only stop in Indiana...