Jason Isbell has seen some major changes in his life in the last couple of years — chief among them marriage and sobriety. If anything, those changes have been positive for Isbell as a songwriter. Listening to “Southeastern,” Guy Clark repeatedly comes to mind in terms of Isbell’s handle on the power of a lyric — especially that of an opening line (The album opens with, “A heart on the run keeps a hand on a gun. You can’t trust anyone,” and “Live Oak” begins with, “There’s a man who walks beside me. He is who I used to be, and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.” ).
For those worried that Isbell might have gotten too soft or happy with his pen can rest easy. There’s still plenty of dark figures in his stories, though there’s a little more hope as well. He remains gifted at relating himself through stories of others — making the themes more universal in the process. Whether it’s about falling love, personal growth (“Different Day”), or losing someone to cancer (“Elephant”), there’s an immediacy to the songs. While hopeful, it’s still a record with plenty of weary characters struggling through, but it’s interesting that Isbell chose to end with “Relatively Easy” — a reminder that there’s a large segment of the world that has it a lot worse (Given that the album is named after the industrial park where Isbell’s father worked, it seems all the more important of a choice.).
This is a Jason Isbell solo album, and as that might suggest, it is a quieter, mostly acoustic affair fitting of the material — though Isbell does include one rocker (“Super 8”). Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires adds some nice fiddle and background vocals. It’s also the first time that Isbell has not produced, instead giving helm to Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, etc.).
Anyone who’s had even a passing interest in Isbell should give this a listen. It’s a beautiful record.