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FIRST NIGHT! JASON ISBELL || ACL LIVE
February 11, 2016 @ 8:00 pm
Every once in a while, and not that often, a popular musician comes along whose work is both profoundly personal and evocative of the larger moment, merging the specifics of lived experience in a particular time and place to the realities of our shared journey as a community, a people. The work of such artists as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and Kurt Cobain – and now JASON ISBELL, I would argue, with his new album Something More Than Free – spreads irresistibly outward from the soul, that private well of vision and emotion, into the broader realm of cultural history, sharpening our ability to see, expanding our ability to feel, and restoring our sense that we belong not only to ourselves but to an extended spiritual family. The songs create a space to be together, and closer together than we were before.
To fans and the music press, the personal story surrounding Isbell’s last, breakthrough album, Southeastern, is widely known and easily reprised. A troubled young troubadour, newly married, stepped away from the darkness of addiction into a new, uncertain life of clarity and commitment, reflecting ruefully on his hard won victories and the price he paid attaining them. It was an album of aching elegance, marked by the sort of lyrical precision that brought to mind certain literary masters of the melancholy American scene, from Flannery O’Connor to Raymond Carver. By avoiding the hairychested bombast of arena country music while crafting music with solid melodic contours Isbell createdan album, and a sound, of memorably infectious empathy.
With Something More Than Free, he stretches himself further, greatly expanding the boundaries of Isbell country, that territory of the heart and mind where people strive against their imperfections, and simultaneously against their circumstances, in a landscape that’s often unfriendly to their hopes. As always, he starts with the subjects he knows best: the dignity of work, the difficulty of love, the friction between the present and the past. “I found myself going back,” he says, explaining the direction he chose to take, “to family and close personal relations.”
The album – and it is an album, a unified musical document, not a grab bag of would-be singles (“I don’t write songs to be played at sporting events,” Isbell cracks) – relaxes and deepens as it goes along, offering some of the pleasures of a fine novel, including a collection of sharp vignettes that stick in the mind, impossible to shake. His humanity has an almost uncanny feel, as though he’s lived three lives for everybody else’s one. He believes in the basic power of his vocation as a writer, singer, player, and artist to conjure wholeness from a world of fragments. He’s the musician we need now, and whom we’ve waited for: candid, vulnerable, outraged, literate, and just romantic enough to carry on in a period of rising disenchantment. His time has come, and so has ours. Listening to Isbell we also hear ourselves.
Doors: 6:30 PM · Show: 8:00 PM