If I was forced to choose a favourite Jason Isbell album I’d be struggling to choose between this one or the next, so please don’t force me. This was the album where I locked in with him again, where I thought “finally, he’s done it”. There is not, to my mind, a song out of place on this album (or its follow up).
Finally the 400 Unit as we know them today are all assembled on “Something More Than Free”. Isbell obviously, Sadler Vaden (guitar), Jimbo Hart (bass), Derry deBorja (keyboards), Amanda Shires (fiddle) and Chad Gamble (drums). Why they aren’t credited here is another mystery.
We start with “If It Takes A Lifetime” a song about a working man who seems not too far removed from Jason Isbell, doesn’t drink (now) keeps his head down and works hard following some hard times but knowing that eventually things will come good for him
“Well I got too far from my raisin’, And I forgot where I come from, And the line between right and wrong was so fine
Well I thought the highway loved me, But she beat me like a drum, My day will come if it takes a lifetime”
“24 Frames” has also become a staple of 400 Unit live shows, a scene by scene look at a relationship, it’s unpredictability and the pitfalls along the way, 24 frames being the speed being the speed film runs at so the human eye can process it, clever huh ? “Flagship” is a delicate acoustic ramble through people watching at a smalltown hotel as a comparison to his relationship (with Amanda Shires ?); “The Life You Chose” is a look at smalltown Kentucky life and asks the question (again ?) are you here because you want to be or…
“Children Of Children” is one of Isbell’s highlight songs live, a song about the writers parents who had him when they were both teenagers. In interviews he’s confessed to a “guilt that I’ve always felt about coming into the world at a time when my parents were very young and not necessarily prepared for it” which could hardly be said to be his fault. During the tour to support “Something More Than Free” it became a centrepiece of the set with Isbell going off on extended guitar solo’s, which yes I’ve confessed to not liking much but this one was the first time I realised what a superb player he is.
“I was riding on my mothers hip, she was shorter that the corn, All the years I took from her just by being born”
The title song is one of my absolute favourite songs, not just by Isbell but by anyone in all honesty. The story of an ordinary working man and his troubles, joys and hopes. The lyric always puts me in mind of my brother in law, Rob, in a good way. A song about the dignity of labour, the work ethic and real people’s lives. It’s utterly beautiful
“I don't think on why I'm here or where it hurts, I’m just lucky to have the work”
After that “Speed Trap Town” lays out smalltown life and the realisation that you can leave; “Hudson Commodore” tells of "an independent lady who loves cars.”; “Palmetto Rose” is an ode to working people trying to turn a buck in South Carolina and I’d always thought final song “To A Band That I Loved” was aimed at the Truckers but it turns out the titular band in question is Centro-Matic (no I’ve never heard of them either) about who Isbell has said “I used to ride out with them and play guitar in their band, when the Truckers weren't touring. I felt some real grief when they split up”.
Finally Jason Isbell made an album that lived up to the promise of the songs he’d contributed to the Drive-By Truckers. From here on in he’s his own person, no longer an ex-Trucker. He has his band around him, he’s sober, married and happy. There will still be bumps in the road but “Something More Than Free” confirmed (at least to me) that Jason Isbell is one of the greatest songwriters in America today.
Something More Than Free - https://youtu.be/Ph3AbR5x6Bs?si=mFyAAGudrtieGetA