And the 400 Unit make it onto an (official) album, well the bones of the 400 Unit in Bass man Jimbo Hart and Keyboard player Derry de Borja, there’s still some churn to happen on the drum stool and at guitar sidekick and the small matter of a fiddler, but we’ll get there eventually.
Much like “Sirens Of The Ditch” upon release I didn’t think this album was all “that”. As I look at the track list now there are a couple of songs that stick out (“Cigarettes And Wine”, “The Last Song I Will Write”) but not many more that make me think I gotta listen to that right now. But then I start playing it and some of these songs start to jump out and change my mind about them. Overall, once again, this album isn’t going to break any musical barriers, Isbell is well versed in (outlaw) country, southern rock and soul music and he takes elements from all those styles to build his sound. What he does is gonna stand or fall on the quality of the songs.
“Seven Mile Island” starts us off with swampy slide guitars and the story of an unwanted pregnancy and a useless father who by songs end is telling his daughter “I just can’t be saved”. 2nd track “Sunstroke” is a beautiful piano led slowie with a lyric that hints at a breakup in process. Next song “Good” comes on all beefed up guitars, a proper (punk) rocker and is almost an apology from one party in the previous songs breakup to the other. It’s got a chorus that gets stuck in your head and you find yourself singing to yourself 4 days later.
Then we hit the first of the standout tracks, “Cigarettes And Wine”. It’s a plodding, barroom Country ballad, it’s as much about Isbell’s excesses as those of the girl that smelled of cigarettes and wine, who might not be a girl at all but a metaphor for the singers excesses. It’s a beaut of a song.
Side one’s lyrics contain a lot of Biblical references (“They tell me you walk on the water now”, “Guess the devil wouldn’t have you”, “Wings on her shoulders and feet”, “See the man’s got too much to count, Try to recollect the sermon on the mount, Blessed are the poor when they’re all swinging from the gallows”). Th religious overload is something of a hazard with US, especially, Country influenced music. It feels like there’s a confession of things the singer now regrets going on, referring back to that breakup and its causes.
Then we reach “Coda”, a 2 minute instrumental that splits the album down the middle and leads us into it’s second half, which starts with the bluesy “The Blue” beginning with the lines “Don’t roll away that stone, girl, Leave it where it lay”, another Biblical reference and a feeling that he will return to in future on “Southeastern”.
“No Choice In The Matter” is another piano led piece but in a style that wouldn’t be out of place in a small Gospel church and when the Stax like Horns hit for the chorus it’s a real pick up. The guitars are busted out and turned up again for “Soldiers Get Strange” and penultimate song “Streetlights” opens with “Where's that angel with dirty knees who wasn't hard to please when we first met?” harking back to the girl who smelled of cigarettes and wine.
“The Last Song I Will Write” feels like a wrap-up for all the apologies and excuses for the broken relationship at the start of the record. It’s a coming full circle for the album lyrically and musically as it it ends with the themes first met in “Coda” at the end of the first half of the album (strangely when this album was re-issued in 2019, the copy I own on lush Green vinyl, “Coda” was moved from the centre of the running order right to the end, after a cover version which isn’t on the original album, where it makes absolutely no sense !).
As I said about an Emmylou Harris album a few weeks back, if you’re after new sounds and new styles then this is the wrong place for you to be looking. Jason Isbell makes music very much set in a musical framework of Country, Soul and Southern Rock with which he is familiar and very proficient. But he writes great and interesting songs within that musical frame. As with his previous studio album, he will make better records than this but he is definitely progressing and I really like it better than this missive suggests.
Cigarettes And Wine - https://youtu.be/AbxMZm0eP6s?si=levIgrh6982-SayY