Jason Isbell has quietly been making quality solo albums for a devoted fan base since his 2007 departure from the Drive By Truckers. In 2013 he broke through to a wider audience, and award-winning acclaim, with the sublime “Southeastern.” The Alabama native continues his winning streak with the quieter but equally captivating “Something More Than Free.”
Produced by Dave Cobb with the same combination of austerity and sumptuousness that he brought to “Southeastern,” as well as recent albums by Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, the 11-track collection is by turns elaborate and spare.
Isbell carefully crafts vignettes that somehow manage the trick of sounding both modern and timeless. On the rollin’ and tumblin’ opening track, “If It Takes a Lifetime,” a hard-working narrator tells his tale of hard-won wisdom and details his days: “I’m learning how to be alone, fall asleep with the TV on, and I fight the urge to live inside my telephone.”
Likewise, every song here includes couplets or whole verses that speak volumes about the characters therein with perfectly illuminating details, as on the gentle “Flagship”: “The couple in the corner of the bar have traveled light and clearly traveled far / She’s got nothing left to learn about his heart / They’re sitting there a thousand miles apart.”
The music ably supports each tale. Artful violins, understated drums, and exquisite harmonies wrap around memorable tunes that toggle between wistfully melancholic and a hushed sultriness. And if the mood is mostly quiet, it only helps to amplify those moments when Isbell spikes the needle briefly into the red, including the soaring, almost Baroque violin-and-electric-guitar outro of “Children of Children” and the fuzzy stomp interlude of closer “To a Band That I Loved.” (Out Friday)
ESSENTIAL “Children of Children”