Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Andrew Chan

The group’s latest album channels the vibrant, yearning sounds and struggles of American history and personal loss.

Weathervanes, by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit,
Southeastern / Thirty Tigers

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There’s something of the straight-A student about Jason Isbell. Regularly referred to as one of our greatest living songwriters, he’s abundantly skilled at the kind of literary detail, euphonious wordplay, and character-driven storytelling that appeals to listeners given to bestowing such superlatives. Though not everything he releases is memorable, he and his five-piece band, the 400 Unit, exude a taut professionalism and a reverence for roots-music traditions that suggest they’ve all done their homework. When he’s not on tour or in the studio, Isbell is making friends in Hollywood (he contributed an original song to Bradley Cooper’s 2018 A Star Is Born and has a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon) and speaking out against bigotry in the Nashville music scene he calls home, a place that still heavily favors straight white men like him. An Alabama native who grew up learning how to embody the archetype of what he calls the “strong and silent Southern man,” Isbell has built a persona around striving to be one of the good ones—an admirable endeavor whose self-conscious virtuousness sometimes feels at odds with the unruly spirit of rock stardom.

On Weathervanes, though, he reminds us that he’s no stranger to trouble and failure. Two songs on the album—the sixth he’s recorded with the 400 Unit—dramatize the agonies of addiction, a malady that overcame Isbell in his twenties, when he was an esteemed member of the rock band Drive-By Truckers. He handles this subject with the compassion of someone intimately familiar with it but stops short of fully identifying with his characters. “King of Oklahoma,” which tells the story of a man who steals copper to pay for his drug problem, is delivered in singsong tercets that are almost whimsical. The devastating “When We Were Close” looks back with tenderness, guilt, and barely suppressed judgment on estranged friend and fellow Nashville artist Justin Townes Earle, who died from an overdose in 2020. Where Isbell’s breakthrough 2013 solo album, Southeastern, captured the weariness of an alcoholic who had only just begun to recover, these new songs examine substance use at a remove, with a hard-charging swagger and wall-of-sound vibrancy that further separate him from the grimness of his narratives.

The Isbell of Southeastern was desperate to be rescued. Here, the singer, relatively secure in his sobriety, tries out the role of savior, only to find no glory in it. In the album’s anguished opener, “Death Wish,” he bears witness to a lover’s depressive episodes, conveying the brutal physicality of her condition in his blunt end rhymes (“death wish,” “light switch,” “rooftop,” “tank top”). “I wanna hold her / until it’s over,” he sings, then admits “there’s nothing I can say to her that I ain’t already said.” The fraught dynamics of heterosexual coupledom come up again in “White Beretta,” a song about an abortion, which conjures a world of shame through its inarticulate male narrator (the taboo topic is never named) and his restlessly avoidant shifts between past and present tense. The protagonist has realized he should apologize to his ex for shutting down emotionally when she needed him most, but his revelation is too little, too late: “It was so many years ago, / oh and I just didn’t know, / but that ain’t no excuse.”

Isbell’s last few albums have contained ample traces of his brilliance (“Only Children,” a track on 2020’s Reunions, features some of his most hauntingly ambiguous songwriting to date), but they’ve also been marred by his occasional tendencies to life-coach and mood-boost, with lines that sound lifted from a therapist’s handbook. On Weathervanes, he does dispense some tough love in “Vestavia Hills,” a slow-drawled blues in which he warns himself against clinging to his “boy genius” phase, but the album is light on platitudes. Its avoidance of preachiness corresponds with its strongly communal vibe; producing for the first time in more than a decade, Isbell places a refreshing emphasis on his bandmates, who imbue their work with ferocity and warmth. Perhaps the release of Georgia Blue, a collection of jammy covers that the group recorded with a few guest vocalists in 2021, primed them to give freer rein to their improvisational chops, which take center stage in a duet of weeping guitars at the end of “This Ain’t It.” Isbell complements the 400 Unit’s backdrops with some of the best vocals of his career. Though he’s always struck me as a songwriter who taught himself to sing out of necessity (unlike, say, Chris Stapleton, one of contemporary country’s most virtuosic voices), it’s hard to ignore his rafter-shaking fervor on “Middle of the Morning,” where he effortlessly catapults to the top of his belting register.

Weathervanes goes out on a different high. The seven-minute “Miles” is the sort of formally surprising composition that Isbell has rarely attempted, and, coming at the close of an album packed with his usual fine-grained character studies and wistful folk ballads, it delivers a necessary jolt of risk. Isbell spends the first half at an ambling pace, imagining a future in which he and his family have grown distant, while also recounting memories of their bond before it frayed. Then, midway through, the track branches off, rock-opera style, into a lament about modern-day alienation that builds into a stadium-scale anthem.

The theme is not an original one, and Isbell has traveled this terrain before. But few songwriters are as sensitive to the ways that people repeatedly fail their loved ones, even as they try not to. “Miles” is reminiscent of peak-era Springsteen or the Jackson Browne of “The Pretender”; it’s an epic full of yearning and aspiration and disillusionment and scorn. It surveys our disaffected moment and tries to come to terms with it through nostalgia-inducing genre conventions that evoke a long view of American struggle. It also acknowledges that the hard-won stability Isbell has found is vulnerable to forces beyond his control. For all the loneliness and anxiety he expresses here, the song’s cross-generational gestures, brought to life by the 400 Unit’s impassioned playing, create the sense of an embrace that extends across time. If we have to suffer, Isbell implies, let’s do it while enveloped by sounds that have a history—sounds that he’s spent his whole life studying into his bones.

Andrew Chan is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His first book, Why Mariah Carey Matters, will be published by University of Texas Press in September.

The group’s latest album channels the vibrant, yearning sounds and struggles of American history and personal loss.
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