Following up an album as iconic and masterful as Southeastern is not an easy task, even for the smartest of artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Jason Isbell had readied a follow-up record so quickly but nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the artistic behemoth that proceeded it. After all, how does an artist even begin to build upon the impossible foundation set by the greatest songwriting triumph this decade? Well, he just does it all over again.
Something More Than Free cements Isbell’s status as the best singer-songwriter currently orbiting the country universe. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. He’s simply a master among armatures.
Lead single “24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with the chorus:
You thought God was an architect
Now you know
He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow
Everything you’ve built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In twenty-four frames
One of the most poignant aspects of Something More Than Free is the reliance on songs about work with an overarching reflection on life as a whole. Album opener “If It Takes A Lifetime” is the greatest rumination on patience I’ve ever heard. “The Life You Chose” is a take-no-prisoners reality check on personal trajectory, asking, ‘are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?’ Isbell’s turns of phrase are impeccable, when the chorus continues by asking, ‘are you taking the grownup dose?’
Isbell is at his strongest on the title track, in which he paints a character spending his days enduring hellish extremes who is ‘just lucky to have the work.’ His songwriting genius reveals itself in the sly way he incorporates the lyric’s true meaning, by stating the song’s title only once. That single usage gives the song its powerful twist:
The day will come. I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb and my hands are freezing
but what I’m working for is something more than free
Those who’ve been deeply affected by Andy’s love for his cancer stricken friend in “Elephant” know Isbell is a storyteller in his class of his own. The remarkable “Speed Trap Town” isn’t as by the book, but it finds Isbell embodying the soul of a man as he realizes he needs a quick exit strategy:
And it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight,
when there’s no one left to ask if I’m alright
I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide
if there’s anything that can’t be left behind
In “Children of Children” Isbell introduces us to Michael, the son of a teenage mother who becomes a teenager with a child of his own. The heartbreaking twist comes when you realize the song is really about a woman’s worth and sacrifice:
You were riding on your mother’s hip
She was shorter than the corn
and all the years you took from her just by being born
Amidst all the grim realities, Isbell throws us a bone with “Flagship,” a sweet love song about one man’s observances and a simple vow to always find a way to keep the romance alive. He gives us a completely different kind of adoration on “The Band I Loved,” which is presumably about The Drive-By-Truckers. Isbell is trying to justify the circumstances when everything went to hell and how he looks back on it all today.
Like Southeastern before it, Something More Than Free is soaked in gritty reality. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His albums, at least these last two, are drenched in rock elements that perfectly compliment his signature gravel and help create the individual mood of each song. Now that he’s strongly framed the house, I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.