Jason Isbell released his newest album The Nashville Sound, but it is nothing like the current Nashville sound. Isbell continues to define himself as the premier songwriter of this generation. Nowhere on this album is there a single mention of trucks, blue jeans/tight jeans, or sipping on the good stuff. While the word girl is used from time to time, Isbell bucks the current Nashville formula and does not use the word as a name for the female he is singing about. His songs are stories about people you know, people struggling with the everyday reality of life in America in 2017, people struggling with addiction, and people who are new parents.
The album opens with the song “The Last of My Kind.” Isbell takes the view of someone from rural America trying to make his life in the city where “everyone’s clapping on the one and the three” and “you can’t see the stars at night.” For all the nostalgia that is created with “The Last of My Kind,” “Cumberland Gap” tears it all down. This song, from the words and music, shows the anger and resentment that comes from those living in that same rural America Isbell describes where “there’s nothing but churches, bars and grocery stores.” The sequencing of these two songs shows what makes Isbell far superior as a songwriter than most of those in Nashville, he is able to show both sides of the same coin.
“Tupelo” could be the coming of age song for the same young man resenting his life and drinking himself “till he is on his ass again” in the Cumberland Gap. Here, the character is trying to abandon his current living situation and move to Tupelo; where “no one from here will follow me there.”
“White Man’s World” makes it clear that the album title The Nashville Sound is not a play on words, it is a direct throwing-down of the gauntlet to the fans of that very sound that white America embraces so openly. A song with the lyric “I’m a white man living in a white man’s town. Wanna take a shot of cocaine and burn it down,” is not going to get a lot of radio airplay on modern country radio, but this, again, is what separates Isbell from the rest of the current Nashville crowd. He will take those risks. He will challenge viewpoints. He will write the songs that most are afraid to write because it will piss off the country crowd. A crowd which he definitely is not trying to have embrace his sound.
“If We Were Vampires” is a different take on a love song. This is a song that presents an interesting take on love. Knowing that, ultimately no matter how much you are in love with your significant other, there is a good chance that one of you will have to live without the other. Knowing that the relationship has a shelf life is what makes love so special. It is the uncertainty that makes you want to do the extra things for your significant other.
“Anxiety”: easily the most autobiographical song on the album. Songs like this are what make Isbell so good, as he puts it “anxiety, I’m out here living a fantasy. I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” You feel like he is not afraid to let you inside his own private world. Isbell lets you know he is like you and that personal connection is what makes his songs better than the rest of the Nashville songwriters.
The songs “Molotov” and “Chaos and Clothes” are both songs that could be personal, but could just as easily be about people who have been in relationships for a long time and worry about keeping the relationship strong. Isbell does not try to sell the fantasy of forever love, but the beauty of working to keep the relationship strong.
Hope the High Road opens with “I used to think this was my town, what a stupid thing to think. I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown, I myself am on the brink. I used to want to be a real man, I don’t know what that even means. Now I just want you in my arms again, and we can search each other's dreams”; sounds like Isbell is back on the love theme. He is, but give the song more of a listen and you find out it’s love of people and country. Even though most in America are mad about the current status quo, which ever side you are on, Isbell hopes the “high road leads you home.”
The album closes with “Something to Love,” his closing advice to his young daughter. It is a beautiful acoustic arrangement that is great advice to both parents and young children. Let the child find their own way, just make sure that it is something that they love that will serve them well.
Make no mistake, Isbell is a southern man from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He and his band, The 400 Unit, are as southern in sound as you can get. If you want something that sounds distinctly southern in sound and tone this album will do it. It is not the “Nashville Sound” you may be looking for but it is certainly the “Nashville Sound” America needs again.