At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m always amazed at the frequency by which Jason Isbell releases new music, every two years, a pace largely unheard of for an artist of his ilk and prestige who isn’t bound by the regimental restrictions of mainstream country music. For most singer/songwriters, pouring their soul into an album feels like an exhaustive process, yet for Isbell, easily the most masterful artist in the Americana vein, it feels like a piece of cake. And yet, he only gets more nuanced and complex with each passing record.
The Nashville Sound, produced by Dave Cobb in RCA Studio A, has an urgent aggression that puts sound to the deep political divide that has risen in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President. Isbell began writing and recording this past January, which allowed him to tackles this unrest from different angles while exploring varying perspectives.
Isbell’s observations often veer personal, as on “White Man’s World,” a bluesy rocker in which he uses his wife and daughter as a catalyst for conveying his fears about the future under the male dominant Trump administration. The track brilliantly traverses these feelings both externally and internally, jumping from disappointment (“I thought this world could be hers one day, but her momma knew better”) and anger (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation”) to optimism (“I still have faith, but I don’t know why maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes”).
“Hope The High Road” generalizes the anger with words of encouragement, providing an anthemic message to anyone who feels they fell on the losing side of 2016. His message, that he hopes “the high road leads you home again, to a world you want to live in,” is heightened by his smart admission – he’s singing as much to himself as he is to them.
No matter how positively he spins the message, “Hope The High Road” bleeds with the same blistering anger that drives the majority of The Nashville Sound. It suggests hope as a process, not an absolute or a right. Isbell also knows the hope can seem distant, especially when a person’s reality is limited by circumstance. “The Cumberland Gap,” one of Isbell’s trademark character sketches, lays bare the struggles of a man suffocated by the extensive promise and bleak reality of mountaintop coal mining. Isbell’s brilliance is how masterfully he’s able to paint dire circumstances around men with smart moral compasses. Andy was undoubtedly the friend we all wish was in our lives. This man, who remains nameless throughout, is a son for the ages. He’s desperate for greener pastures but thinks how his mom would react. He’s the only family member left to care for her.
Another such illustration, “Tupelo,” examines the hopes we hold onto to get us through life, as told through the story of a drunk who imagines a better life with a woman in the titular Mississippi town. Isbell never allows us insight into whether or not the woman is real or a made-up construct in the man’s mind, allowing us to feel this guy’s struggle alongside him.
Isbell brings his internal struggle to the surface on “Last of My Kind,” which examines his first person perspective on trying to find his place in this world. This thought process continues on “Anxiety,” a brutally honest look at how fear can paralyze our psyche and contribute to feeling restless and lost.
As much as The Nashville Sound confronts our desire for a sense of place, it also seeks to examine personal relationships. A friendship with Ryan Adams led to “Chaos and Clothes,” a song about his 2016 divorce from singer and This Is Us actress Mandy Moore.
“Something To Love,” which Isbell wrote for his two-year-old daughter Mercy, is a rare moment of levity, anchored by the sunny fiddle played by his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. That Nashville Sound isn’t necessarily a strict country album, but “Something To Love” is no doubt a country song.
As if it’s even possible, there is one song on The Nashville Sound that ranks above the rest and belongs in the upper echelon of Isbell’s legacy. That track is “If We Were Vampires,” a stunning love song about a couple’s appreciation for one another knowing that time will ultimately tear them apart:
If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone
“If We Were Vampires” is Isbell at his best, giving the world a song that stands up to “Elephant,” which I’ll always consider his crowning achievement as an artist. His best songs, ten of which appear here, are like punches to the gut in all the best ways. The Nashville Sound is a brilliant album from beginning to end.