Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound | Album Review
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit delivers one of the year’s best albums with ‘The Nashville Sound,’ blending Americana, country, and rock seamlessly.
Alabama singer/songwriter Jason Isbell made history in 2016. How? He won his first Grammys, for Best Americana album, Something More Than Free, and Best American Roots Song, “24 Frames.” Prior to his Grammy victory, Something More Than Free would also give Isbell his first top-ten album on the Billboard 200. Isbell can only hope to duplicate and expand on his accomplishments on his sixth studio album, The Nashville Sound. He doesn’t go it alone on The Nashville Sound; he’s accompanied by his band, The 400 Unit. The results of The Nashville Sound are awesome.
“Last of My Kind”
“Last of My Kind” kicks off The Nashville Sound superbly. The vibe is more acoustic-driven, in a singer/songwriter sentiment. The lyrics pack a punch as Isbell imparts tales of society around him. On the second verse, he references homelessness and how people aren’t the least bit sympathetic:
“Old men sleeping on the filthy ground / They spend their whole day just walking around / Nobody else here seems to care / They walk right past them like they ain’t even there.”
Throughout the song, Isbell feels out of place. Things have changed and he feels like the odd man out. Regardless of questioning his place in society, he delivers a gem.
“Cumberland Gap” continues the excellence. Contrasting “Last of My Kind,” “Cumberland Gap” has more of a rock edge. Electric guitars add a grittiness to the sound. Additionally, the tempo is quicker. The chorus is simple, yet irresistible:
“Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole.”
What’s the context? Isbell paints a picture of living life in a box, without more variation and aspirations. Hence, living the life in the Cumberland Gap – literally or metaphorically – can seem like a deathtrap of sorts because of limited opportunities.
“If I get out of this hole I’m going to Tupelo,” proclaims Isbell on “Tupelo,” a mid-tempo, country-tinged number. Tupelo, Mississippi isn’t the most rousing choice for escapism, but he addresses that as well.
“There is a girl out there that will treat me fair…/ There ain’t no one from here that will follow me there.”
Tupelo, like the Cumberland Gap, can be viewed both literally and figuratively. Ultimately, more trouble would find the singer/songwriter any place he goes, even as he seeks to escape personal hell.
“White Man’s World” examines the flaws of society, particularly in relation to gender and race. It is a must listen by all means. First, Isbell addresses inequality for women, specifically citing hope for his baby daughter. Next, he tackles the inhabitation of Native American land as well as guilt for the unjust treatment of black men. By the end, he questions God, but still finds faith, thanks to “the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
“If We Were Vampires”
On “If We Were Vampires” Isbell discusses the fact that one day him or his wife will die and one will be left alone.
“It’s know that this can’t go on forever / Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we’ll get forty years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.”
On the second verse, the vampires come into play. “If [they] were vampires,” they’d have nothing to worry about after all. Obviously, Isbell realizes this isn’t realistic in the least. He goes on to say:
“Maybe time running out is a gift / I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift / and give you every second I can find / And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”
“Anxiety” is nothing short of epic. The lengthiest song off The Nashville Sound, it’s worth every bit of its seven minutes. The title explains it all – Isbell can’t get past his anxiety. On the chorus, he passionately sings:
“Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me? / I’m out here living in a fantasy / I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.”
What causes his anxiety is life itself. On the first verse, he’s worried about losing his family, which is his world. On the second verse, he starts it off with “It’s the weight of the world.” The music on this particular song is awesome, particularly the instrumental at the end.
“Molotov” finds Isbell recollecting on a past relationship. The most memorable verse is arguably the first. During the verse, “a county fair in steamy September / In the Year of the Tiger 19-something” comes to the songwriter’s mind. Throughout the course, he reflects, at one point asking, “Do you miss the girl you once had time to be?”
“Chaos and Clothes” is a pleasant surprise. One of the quietest moments of The Nashville Sound, it’s also one of the most beautiful. Here, the folksy, singer/songwriter vibe is in full fruition. A breakup song, the Geniuses speculate Isbell had Ryan Adams in mind as the victim of heartbreak, citing several instances. Regardless of specificity or lack thereof, the subject is on the struggle bus:
“You’re in a fight to the death my friend / Black metal t-shirts your shield / You’ve got your past on your breath my friend / Now name all the monsters you’ve killed / Let’s name all the monsters you’ve killed.”
“Hope the High Road”
“Hope the High Road” contrasts “Chaos,” adopting an edgier sound thanks to gritty guitars. Throughout the verses, Isbell depicts a series of unfortunate happenings. During the second verse, these happenings include the turbulent 2016, which he describes as “a son of a bitch.” Despite the adversity, on the chorus, Isbell states, “I hope the high road leads you home again / To a world you want to live in.”
“Something to Love” closes The Nashville Sound optimistically. Isbell reflects on pleasant memories from the past in his “tiny southern town,” as well as present, timeless memories. Ultimately, he “hope you find something to love / Something to do when you feel like giving up.”
Bravo, Jason Isbell, bravo! The Nashville Sound earns a coveted spot as one of the best albums of 2017 without question. The songwriting is creative, relevant, and thoughtful. The 400 Unit encompass Americana, country, and rock, handling all magnificently. There are no misses whatsoever over the span of the ten featured tracks. All in all, The Nashville Sound is a gem.
Gems: “Last of My Kind,” “Cumberland Gap,” “White Man’s World,” “Anxiety,” “Chaos and Clothes” & “Hope the High Road”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit • The Nashville Sound • Southeastern • Release: 6.16.17