Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “Seven Mile Island”

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Jason Isbell doesn’t record with the Drive-by Truckers anymore, but, during his tenure with the band, he wrote and sang what’s probably still my favorite song by either artist– “Outfit,” from DBT’s 2003 masterwork, Decoration Day. It’s a song about growing up and gaining perspective, about fathers and songs, and, crucially, about life in the dirty south. Isbell litters the song with little details about trailer parks and shotgun weddings, about twangy accents and redneck jokes, but what makes the song remarkable is that they really are just little details; at its heart, the song is very much about fathers and sons, with all the local color serving simply as the incidental details. It’s not a parody, a caricature, or a novelty, and Isbell never sounds like a tourist. He walks an impossibly fine line, and he does so with confidence and poise. The song shouldn’t work, but it does.

Confidence and poise have never been missing from Isbell’s songwriting, though they’re ocassionally in short demand in his performances. Isbell’s work with the Truckers was always terrific, but his debut album as a solo artist, Sirens of the Ditcb, while a fine album, was also the tiniest bit tentative and stilted, like he wasn’t yet entirely comfortable with the thought of being a lone performer. Perhaps he was always meant to be in a band, because with debut as the leader of the 400 Unit, Isbell regains the sure footing of his finest work with the Drive-by Truckers, and creates an entire album that perches gracefully on that precarious line he walked on “Outfits.”

Let’s be honest: These rootsy, alt-country singer/songwriters, with their heavy accents and twangy guitars and beer-soaked anthems of lost love, have  a tendency to bleed together. To his credit, Isbell isn’t as much alt-country as country-rock– a key distinction– and he and the 400 Unit alternate between warm country-soul and savage attacks that have as much in common with garage and heartland rock as Southern rock. The whole album is crafted with live, full-band performance in mind, and the four players plow through these tunes with gleeful abandon and swagger. On the rockers, like the driving “Good” and the cocky, politically-charged “However Long,” Isbell leads his band with howling zeal and piledriving momentum; slower numbers like “Sunstroke” and “The Blue” are aching, soulful, and deep. What makes the album great is the way that Isbell deftly plays into Southern rock and country traditions, pushing them almost to the point of breaking– or at the very least, of grave cliche– but makes his song winning through the sheer force of his playing, the smarts of his writing, and the grit of his interactions with his band.

Nowhere is that more evident than on the album’s seven-minute centerpiece, “Cigarettes and Wine,” perhaps the most melodramatic, weak-at-the-knees, tear-jerking country weeper in years, a song that should be a horrible mess but somehow manages to work marvelously. Here, Isbell takes the sprint of “Outfits” and stretches it to marathon lengths, piling on salloon pianos and slow-burn guitar riffing upon a swelling chorus, all of it packed with cry-in-your-beer lyrics about heartache and pills. It’s as cliche as country gets, and Isbell knows it– but he makes it work, winking in the chorus that “I know that’s not much of a line, but it’s God’s only truth.” It’s just terrific.

Of course, the other fine line Isbell walks is that that separates the singer/songwriter from the full-band record. He has it both ways here, writing instrospective songs and maintaining a strong, personal presence while also joining his supporting musicians in rich, tough performances that rock hard and sparkle with real depth and chemistry. When “However Long” bleeds into the spirited, instrumental “Coda,” it feels like a victory lap, a celebration of the band’s impressive raport with each other and the sweet, soulful racket they make throughout the album. And “No Choice in the Matter” blurs the line between country and soul– aren’t they pretty much the same thing anyway?– in large part due to the sympathetic, understated work of the band, joined on this track by a horn section.

That every song is a gem should be a given; Isbell has long been a vital songwriter, and here he’s writing with as much confidence and vision as ever, sounding, perhaps for the first time, like he’s relishing his role as a lone frontman. Adding “bandleader” to his resume seems to have given him the courage and  inspiration he needed, and the album that results is a fantastic, utterly winsome set that hopefully marks the beginning of a long and prolific partnership.

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