Album Review – Jason Isbell’s ‘Something More Than Free’ Celebrates Life & Love

Jason Isbell Something More Than Free

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.

Grade: 10/10

35 thoughts on “Album Review – Jason Isbell’s ‘Something More Than Free’ Celebrates Life & Love

  1. Derek Hudgin July 17, 2015 / 11:10 am

    What a great album! My early favorites are “Flagship” and “Speed Trap Town.”

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  2. George July 17, 2015 / 11:16 am

    Brilliant !!! This album has a lot of fine points that manifest as you listen to it several times. Conceivably the album is a bit too glossy for my taste notwithstanding it shows Isbell’s commanding proficiency when it comes to writing a song.

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  3. Raymond July 17, 2015 / 12:14 pm

    Maybe I will check this album out later seems promising. Still I am most looking forward to Ashley Monroe’s album The Blade her voice is pure gold and I still think she’ll deliver. Have u guys streamed it and any early thoughts.

    More artist have new music guess who just announced a new song. Cassadee Pope the song is titled I am Invincible. I’m only somewhat looking forward too it.

    Hopefully I can get around to this album eventually. Just have more albums this summer I am saving up for. Sorry but kudos to Jason Isbell for making music that appeals to people. Maybe he’ll expand his fanbase.

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    • Truth No. 2 July 17, 2015 / 12:23 pm

      I streamed Monroe’s album on NPR. She’s trying to capitalize on the success of “Lonely Tonight” by releasing a bunch of pop country songs in the hope that radio will play her. It was a big step backwards for her.

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      • Raymond July 17, 2015 / 1:01 pm

        Really I heard it was a mix of traditional songs and pop-country songs with very solid production and writing. But what do I know.

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  4. Zack July 17, 2015 / 2:45 pm

    Though I don’t enjoy it as much as Southeastern, I find this to definitely be one of the year’s best and easily a 10/10 effort.

    I know it’s a very polarizing track (at least, that’s what I’ve drawn based on the opinions), but I love “Palmetto Rose”. Other highlights for me were “Children Of Children”, “24 Frames”, “Something More Than Free”, “Life You Chose”, and “To A Band That I Loved”. There really isn’t one weak track here though, and I don’t think I’ve ever meant that more for an album so far this year, every track says something and makes a difference. I haven’t given a listen to Alan Jackson’s yet, I’m hoping to get a physical copy of that when I get home tonight. Needless to say it’s an AMAZING day for country music!

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  5. Nadia Lockheart July 17, 2015 / 3:15 pm

    Where we are in obvious agreement is that this is another solid offering from Jason Isbell. Few songwriters are as illustrative, incisive and emotionally compelling as Isbell presently, and for the most part “Something More Than Free” is no exception.

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    However, I’d have to respectfully disagree that he has set the bar higher than Whitey Morgan (as well as James McMurtry) this calendar year.

    Honestly, I’m not exactly sure where to begin in explaining my argument. I think the best bet would be to reiterate why Chris Stapleton’s “Traveler” is not a contender for Album of the Year in my eyes despite it still being unmistakably solid. With “Traveler”, as much as I praise that album for Stapleton’s powerful vocal and earthy production, as well as a handful of solid well-written individual cuts………………..I couldn’t help but feel a number of tracks like “Nobody To Blame”, “Fire Away” and “The Devil Named Music” sell themselves short in that, while they admirably at least try to be self-aware, they don’t provide a lot of detail as to WHY he feels or is at fault, or punch deeper at the gut. They are excellent as kernels, but just came across more as good sketches of songs than full-blooded tracks where their subtleties are fully conveyed.

    And I feel a similar situation surfaces here and there on “Something More Than Free”.

    Don’t get me wrong: there are more than enough individual moments that make this more than worthy of a recommendation and size up well with his discography’s best to date. “Speed Trap Town” is definitely a home run, as is the title track and to a slightly lesser extent “The Life You Chose” and even “Palmetto Rose” most notably, for exactly the reasons you state. I also feel the former three songs in particular kind of sum up the thematic arc of the record as a whole and, for that, this album clearly succeeds in its cohesion.

    Yet I felt several other tracks left a little more to be desired. Again, there are songs like “Flagship”, “Children of Children” and even the album-closing “To a Band That I Loved” that lack much in the way of narrative wholeness. There’s definitely a reflective quality intact of each of them, but they don’t provide much in the way of conveying how their lessons, follies and heartaches from before have informed them now and how they’ll inspire purpose or resolve moving forward. They seem particularly passive, actually.

    And don’t get me wrong. Sometimes that IS the point. The “We Report, You Decide” convention of songwriting has always existed, and sometimes it is really the job of the narrator to simply report what either her/himself is feeling or observing or processing, and leave some ambiguity in its wake for the listener to dissect. Anyone who has followed me along here knows I’m a sucker for nuance and ambiguity in lyrics. But I couldn’t help but feel the aforementioned tracks in particular fell a bit short in descriptive quality, and with that any deeper conversation or potential catharsis or urgency is undercut.

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    Also, as much as the instrumentation and production, as a whole, fits the intimate vibe Isbell is aiming for…………….it comes across as a bit too bland in places and I found “languorous” was the first adjective that popped next in my head. I would have loved to see Amanda Shires be let more loose on some tracks, for instance.

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    Still, in the end, “Something More Than Free” is another all-around solid effort that, while unlikely to make the Top Five of my Best Country Albums of 2015 list, still serves as a case-in-point in how mainstream country would be wise to adopt more of his brand of emotional resonance to its lyricism and themes, and states that less can amount to a whole lot more often.

    I’m feeling an 8/10 for this one, honestly. I do like this slightly more than “Traveler” mostly because I think Isbell’s vocals do a better job articulating nuance (while Stapleton is better at articulating emotive peaks)…………….but both of their albums are somewhat flawed in not providing enough description and detail so to inspire a deeper connection to the narrator, which leaves them short of a timeless quality and urgency.

    At any rate, it’s good to have Isbell back, and here’s cheering him on in seeing his fanbase grow like Zac Brown wants. =)

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    • Josh Schott July 17, 2015 / 3:38 pm

      Hey I can totally get this. As I said in my review it took me several listens to really connect with this album. I think with “Flagship,” “Children of Children” and “To A Band That I Loved” it’s going to vary with each person. Some people will be able to find a connection with it and some won’t. That’s just the type of songs they are. I personally enjoy these type of songs that let you decided what it is.

      As far as the McMurtry album, I gave it another listen and I just can’t get into it as much as the Isbell and Stapleton albums. While there is a lot of great songwriting on Complicated Game, it feels like there’s too much emphasis on this and not on the songs as a whole. For me it just feels too laid back and almost dry for me at times, whereas Stapleton and Isbell were able to stir up more emotion in me consistently, as they seemed more focus on the whole song and not just the songwriting. While songwriting is obviously important, great instrumentation helps really bring it to life.

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      • Nadia Lockheart July 17, 2015 / 4:13 pm

        That’s certainly a fair point! =)

        It could just be we have slightly different taste buds for lyricism, much like I might be able to tolerate ghost peppers and habaneros more than others while a little less likely to tolerate sugar-sweet foods! =)

        At any rate, we can agree all of the above artists are the cream of the crop in hoping to influence the broader format! ^__^

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      • Zack July 17, 2015 / 5:33 pm

        You see this what I love most about this year. There’s no clear album of the year that everyone is agreeing on, there’s several that connect to people in different ways. It’s a great way to open up friendly conversation like you two are having and discuss what and why people chose their favorites.

        If I were to rank Isbell, Whitey and James, I would probably go in that exact order, but hey, that’s me.

        Honestly the only song on here that I don’t connect to as much as a lot of other people have is “Flagship”.

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  6. Cobra July 17, 2015 / 9:31 pm

    Speed Trap Town and Palmetto Rose are eearly favorites on the album for me. After all the times I’ve listened to Southeastern, it may take thos album sone time to catch up, but it is a perfect album, an absolute masterpiece.

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