Published May 13, 2020Sobriety journeys should be soundtracked by Jason Isbell deep cuts like "It Gets Easier." One of many highlights from his new album Reunions, the song features some of the alt-country's star's most anthemic and empathetic lyrics about addiction, in the vein of prior soul-bearing classics like "Cover Me Up."
But that earlier song is a tender and resigned acoustic ode to drying out. This fresh cut, meanwhile, boasts a plugged in rhythm section that throbs like the adrenaline rush of temptation. It's a realistic, unflinchingly honest take on the long-term resolve needed for self betterment, sung with Isbell's trademark sly humour and hard earned earnestness. Indeed, "It Gets Easier" will delight the throngs of fans this songwriter has earned by unveiling his flaws, some of whom attribute their own sobriety to those frank lyrics (according a fantastic recent GQ profile that you really should read after you're through with this review).
Most of this LP's remaining nine tracks boast the same attributes as "It Gets Easier." Chalk the harder rocking moments up to Isbell's top notch band the 400 Unit. They share top billing and a good portion of the spotlight throughout, unlike Isbell's famously stripped-down solo breakthrough Southeastern. On Reunions, Isbell nimbly balances both the tender (a la Southeastern's "Cover Me Up") and rugged (think Drive-By Truckers' "Decoration Day," on which Isbell played guitar) playing styles that helped him win over different contingents through the years.
So on the one hand, this new LP allows fans to soak themselves in the gentle eddy of marriage allegory "River," given added depth from the moaning fiddle of Amanda Shires, Isbell's wife and a fluid songwriter in her own right. Then there's the spare and haunting "St. Peter's Autograph." which features a simple rhyme scheme and plainspoken vocal delivery, all of which are grippingly juxtaposed with an eruption of electric guitar fretting in the closing moments.
Even better than those pared down songs, vividly vulnerable as they may be, is Reunions' heart-wrenching linchpin, "Dreamsicle." Through it, Isbell grants listeners the vantage of a broken-home childhood during a summer sticky with humidity, sweetened by artificially flavoured treats, and galled by absent fathers. The suddenly dense lyricism he unveils on this song's verses will find you reaching for the replay button before the track can melt from your memory. Meanwhile, brawnier rocking tracks like "Running With Our Eyes Closed," "Be Afraid" and "What've I Done To Help" all showcase Isbell's explosive chemistry with the 400 Unit.
Regardless of whether he's playing at full tilt or fluttering on acoustic rhythms, Isbell's poetic eye for detail remains constant. Be it the astrological metaphor he effortlessly weaves into the climax of "Only Children," or the "wish I made on a satellite" on "Running With Our Eyes Closed," not to mention the heat lightning and flowing locks of his mother's hair on "Dreamsicle," there's no shortage of novelistic songwriting throughout these ten tracks. And when he closes the proceedings with a number dedicated to his daughter — featuring a flower metaphor that's movingly unflower-y in its delivery — nary a listener's eye will remain dry.
With Reunions, Isbell unites the disparate aspects of his craft — soothing acoustic and fiercely electric; Hemingway's word economy dashed with Oscar Wilde-worthy asides, relatable details and otherworldly allusions. These tools help him explore his shortcomings as a family man ("Overseas"), his conflicting joy and melancholy as a parent ("Letting You Go"), and his constant maintenance as a recovering addict ("It Gets Easier"). For listeners immersed in similar bittersweet nuances on a daily basis, there's no better musical accompaniment than Isbell's latest. (Southeastern Records)