Well it’s here. The day many country and Americana fans have been waiting months for: July 17. Today Alan Jackson and Jason Isbell released their new albums, two of the most highly anticipated of the year in the genre. Isbell’s new album, Something More Than Free, was probably one of the most anticipated in all of music this year. After all his previous album Southeastern he released in 2013 was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year and for some the outright best (debatable between it, Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain and The Mavericks’ In Time). It won numerous awards at the Americana Awards this past year and it should have at the very least been nominated for Best Americana Album at the Grammys. Out of all the albums I’ve heard in the past five years, it’s near the top of my must-listen list in all genres. So I was pretty excited myself to hear Something More Than Free. Once again Dave Cobb returns as producer, so you knew this would be another must-listen. Everything Cobb touches seems to be golden. And after listening to it thoroughly I can say it not only lived up to expectations, but surpassed them. Isbell has once again delivered a masterpiece.
Something More Than Free opens with “If It Takes A Lifetime,” a song about finding your happiness in life. Whether this takes a lifetime or not, Isbell is determined to find that day. The song has an easy-going attitude with some nice guitar play. After such a dark album in Southeastern in 2013, this song is a good indicator of how this album is the aftermath of this pain and moving on in life past that darkness. The first track released off this album, “24 Frames,” is next. I was impressed when I first heard this song. I was impressed when I heard it live and I’m still impressed now with it. This song is very catchy on the surface, both lyrically and instrumentation-wise. When you delve more into the song though, you realize how deep it goes. The song is about how short life is and how everything you know now could be gone in an instant. It’s hard to pick favorites on an album like this one, but this one certainly stands out.
Isbell is well-known for his heartbreak/sad songs, but they forget how great he is at love songs too. He reminds us with “Flagship.” It has an almost haunting tone about it, with a simple acoustic guitar and the dynamic voice of Isbell. This is one of those songs that are hard for me to explain and something you need to hear for yourself. The brilliant songwriting of Isbell is truly one of a kind. One of the more upbeat tracks on Something More Than Free is “How To Forget.” Just like “24 Frames,” this is another song you can get stuck in your head quite easily. Of course this isn’t a bad thing at all. The instrumentation on this song could not be any better. As someone who has seen the 400 Unit live, they’re one of the top bands in the country and this song clearly showcases it.
With Isbell having his first child on the way, you kind of knew he would have some songs about raising children on the album and we get that with “Children of Children.” He reflects on his own upbringing by his mother, who had Isbell when she was just a teenager and the impact that made on her life. Like every great Isbell song, it really makes you think. And then you want to listen to it again and again. Each time I feel like I pick up something else from the song. You get the picture. “Life You Chose” reflects on the choices you make in life and questioning if you’re where you’re supposed to be. I love how prominently Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires is featured on the chorus of this song, as it really elevates it and gives it a punch. Then again any time these two sing together will catch your attention. This is a song that will vary with each listener and have a different meaning to him or her.
I said before that it would be impossible to choose a favorite on this album, but I take that back. The album’s title track to me is the crown jewel of the record. From Isbell’s soaring vocals to the poetic lyrics to the instrument arrangement, this song has everything I want in a country song. Isbell sings of being thankful for the work and how he strives to get something more than free. It’s a beautiful song and without a doubt one of my favorites of the year. “Speed Trap Town” is another shining example of Isbell’s brilliant storytelling abilities. He seems to flawlessly be able to craft a story that hooks you from the start and keeps you intrigued until it finishes. The story told in this song is about a boy growing up in a little town and watching his father die in a hospital bed. The boy reflects on his dad’s life and saying goodbye for the last time. While this album is overall happier than Southeastern, this song is the tear-jerker of Something More Than Free.
The 400 Unit really gets to shine on “Hudson Commodore.” The instrumentation is just exceptional, not to mention we also get to hear some top-notch fiddle play from Amanda Shires. Hearing her fiddle play will never get old to me. This is the type of song that will be a treat for live crowds, as it has a cool sound. The gritty, southern rock-influenced “Palmetto Rose” follows this. Once again you get to hear the 400 Unit at their best on this song. The song itself is homage to working class people and South Carolina, as Isbell refers to as the “Iodine State.” Charleston, South Carolina also gets mentioned in the song, as the palmetto rose is the subject of it. These woven roses are a staple of the city. It’s a nice shout out to a city that has gone through so much heartbreak and pain in recent months. The album closes out with “To A Band That I Loved” and it’s another song where I’m mesmerized by the sheer talent of Jason Isbell. His haunting vocals pierce through to your ears like a cool, gentle breeze. This song lures you in and doesn’t let go until it finishes. I think this is the best vocal performance by Isbell on the album and it’s a fitting way to close it out. If you can’t feel a song like this one, I’m not sure what it would take to touch you. It really sums up the whole album to me.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this album is fantastic and I highly recommend getting it. I didn’t think it would be possible for Jason Isbell to craft an album even better than Southeastern, but he’s done it with Something More Than Free. While Southeastern was the painful rebirth of Isbell, Something More Than Free feels like a celebration of life and finding your true happiness. There are still plenty of somber and sobering moments on the album, but I think it makes the bright moments feel that much brighter. It’s a true representation of the spectrum of life we live each and every day. I’ll admit that it took me a few listens to really get into this album, but trust me once it clicks you’ll fall in love with it. The bar was set earlier this year by Chris Stapleton and Whitey Morgan. But Jason Isbell just topped it and set it even higher. Something More Than Free is one of the best of the year to me so far and you would be wise to seek this album out and listen to it over and over. I know I am.