Album Review — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell has clearly established at this point that he’s one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. Album after album of lyrical excellency has solidified his spot in the history books as an artist who will be remembered by many for years to come. But his last album The Nashville Sound felt like a bit of a “let down” and for him a let down is an album that is a strong 8 to light 9 (while also earning two Grammys). While “If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety” were standouts and in my opinion some of his best songs ever, there were also well intentioned, but clunky in execution songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope The High Road.” I can’t deny I was worried he would have more songs like this one. And again I have zero issues with message songs like this one. But like many modern day message songs, they often focus too much on the message and not enough on the song being good too. You can have the best messages in the world in your songs, but if the songs aren’t good, nobody is listening and nobody hears the message (which defeats the whole purpose).

The first two singles for Reunions were wrongly misinterpreted by a few as being in this vein. But after hearing “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid,” these songs clearly aren’t clunky like the aforementioned songs on Isbell and the 400 Unit’s previous album. It’s even more clear when hearing them with the rest of the album. They’re actually great and catchy songs with heartfelt messages about lending a helping hand and taking a stand for things you believe in. And there’s no inherent political messages being conveyed (the listener of course is welcome to interpret this to be political if they wish to do so). These songs also feel even more appropriate within these trying times in our country, serving as inspirational anthems.

These singles were definitely a great indication of the sound of this album, which is a very guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock sound that Isbell said was inspired by 80s rock like Dire Straits. While upon first listens it feels like this album lacks the vibrancy of previous albums, it grows more and more upon repeat listens. Particularly the guitar work on this is really given a pedestal and drives the songs, a credit to Isbell, the 400 unit and his now regular producer Dave Cobb. It really shines on “Overseas,” where the guitar work is just simmering with heat and emotion. The song serves as a great reminder that you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles with this level of guitar playing.

Speaking of “Overseas,” if there’s one weaker spot on this album, it’s when Isbell evokes allegorical, more abstract lyricism. The aforementioned song, “River” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” are all great songs. But they’re definitely not immediately accessible and fall in the same vein of my thoughts on Cody Jinks’ “William and Wanda.” This is kind of ironic in comparison to the rest of the album, as it feels like some of Isbell’s most accessible work yet. It can make for a jarring listen until the album really sinks in. It’s a minor nitpick, but a nitpick nonetheless.

“Dreamsicle” is about a child watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and watching the dreams of his youth disappearing. At first I didn’t like Isbell stretching his vocals so much, but I came to appreciate it with more listens (much like with Eric Church’s “Higher Wire”). “Only Children” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed” are two more great love songs from Isbell. While acts like Tennis and Carly Rae Jepsen do such a great job of showing the sunnier sides of love, Isbell nails the darker, more dour moments. “Running with Our Eyes Closed” in particular feels like the after of “If We Were Vampires,” stripping away the romanticism and showing the “worts” of being in a relationship.

The best two songs on this album for me though are without a doubt the final two. While I enjoy the brawnier guitar moments a lot, it’s these starkly honest final tracks that grab me the most. “It Gets Easier” is a raw and confessional song about Isbell coming to grips with where he’s at in his commitment to sobriety. While the fight never ends and never gets easy, Isbell realizes it gets easier with age, despite the fears that he will relapse in the back of his mind. Emotionally, honest-driven lyrics like these are why Isbell is one of the best, as he flawlessly conveys the drive and struggle behind a complex issue.

Isbell shows his softest side with “Letting You Go,” where he as a father comes to the hard realization of one day having to let go of his daughter. It’s such a beautiful look at the relationship of father and daughter, and how the former has to learn how to shed his naturally protective nature and let his daughter live her life without him by her side at all times. The chorus in particular just tugs so hard at the heart strings, with “The roses just know how to grow” line being one of Isbell’s best. It says so much with so much heart and I imagine any fathers listening to this probably melt when hearing it.

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

Grade: Solid 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3Up1uKhcPA