by Kelly McCartney (@theKELword) for FolkAlley.com
As soon as “If It Takes a Lifetime” opens Jason Isbell’s ‘Something More Than Free,’ it’s obvious that the singer/songwriter did not make ‘Southeastern: The Sequel.’ Quite the opposite, really. ‘Southeastern’ overflowed with cutting lyrics that rock his fellow writers back on their heels in awe every time they hear them. Lines like this (from “Songs That She Sang in the Shower”): “On a lark, on a whim, I said ‘There’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.’ And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke.” Those kinds of brilliant turns of phrases filled each song on that album and made it what it was.
Here, though, Isbell is far more exacting and economical in his eloquence, applying rigorous standards to his word choices and reserving the grandiosity for his musical explorations. That’s not to say that his character sketches aren’t poetic. They are. They are merely more grounded than lofty this time out, leaving less of a vapor trail. “And the couple in the corner of the bar have traveled light and, clearly, traveled far. She’s got nothing left to learn about his heart and they’re sitting there a thousand miles apart,” he sings in “Flagship” to set the scene. Then he injects himself into the story: “Baby, let’s not ever get that way. I’ll say whatever words I need to say.” It’s the most tender moment on the record, haunting in its simplicity.
Contrasting that piece are entries more reminiscent of the Band and Neil Young than anything on ‘Southeastern.’ And while specific lyrics may not linger, Isbell’s melodies certainly do. While “If It Takes a Lifetime,” “Flagship,” “24 Frames,” “Children of Children,” and “Hudson Commodore” are certainly stand-out tracks, ‘Something More Than Free’ is one of those top-to-bottom albums that, just drop the needle anywhere and it’ll hit a great song.