“The Nashville Sound”, Jason Isbell’s 6th solo album, was recorded in Nashville’s famed RCA Studio A, where, in the 1960’s it became the location where developed the musical and production style now known as…the Nashville sound. Since the release of “Something More Than Free” Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires had become parents and, as I well know, when that happens your world view shifts “"Finally you get all of those things [in your life] dealt with. What are you gonna talk about now? You can't moan, and you can't sing the blues anymore. So you have to figure out how to empathize, better than you've ever done."
There are 3 songs on this record that if I was asked to explain to someone what Jason Isbell was about would serve as the perfect examples, “If We Were Vampires”, “Hope The High Road” and “Something To Love”, we’ll get to them presently. Many of the songs are about Isbell’s earlier life starting with “Last Of My Kind”. It’s built around a delicious acoustic guitar theme that repeats and repeats and you cannot help but end up whistling along to (or at least I can’t). It’s a character study of the singer “built upon partially who I was when I first started touring, when I came from Alabama and started traveling around the country for the first time.” and the people he grew up around from small Alabama towns who told him cities were terrible places.
“Couldn't be happy in the city tonight, I can't see the stars for the neon lights
Sidewalk's dirty and the river's worse, Underground trains all run in reverse”
“Cumberland Gap” is a rocker with the singer reflecting on his drinking days and his parents role in his life; “Tupelo” is fabulous (and how come so many American place names make great song titles ? I can’t imagine being excited about songs titled “Watford Gap” or “Telford” can you ?) both lyrically and musically. It’s a song looking forward, to going to a “place” where things are better with people you want to be with (“Driving fast with the windows down, A past I don't belong to now, a mystery”).
“White Man’s World” throws a howl at the overt racism you find across America, which I’ve always found most strange it being a country almost entirely built on immigration. Isbell addresses his ‘white privilege’, something he has no control over, he’s a father now and wants to protect his daughter from the worst of Trump’s “‘muricah”, how Native American traditions are belittled and how easily overt racism toward African Americans enters everyday conversation (“The highway runs through the burial grounds, Past the oceans of cotton”). Consider Isbell is a Southerner with, at this time, a very Southern audience, this album was made in Nashville TN, it’s hard hitting stuff.
“If We Were Vampires” may well be one of the greatest love songs ever written. If you recall what I had to say about Nick Cave’s “(Are You) The One That I've Been Waiting For?” some months ago I feel much the same about “If We Were Vampires”. It’s about love as you get older, about how you would express yourself to the one you love if you knew you would live forever, how you might not feel the need to tell them you love them so often if there was to be no end to it. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I don’t often quote entire verses here but…
“If we were vampires and death was a joke, We'd go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans, I wouldn't feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift, I’ll work hard 'til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find, And hope it isn't me who's left behind”
All this wrapped up in some superb acoustic guitar picking and a gorgeous harmony vocal from Amanda Shires. It took me until 2017 to get to see Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (sadly sans Ms Shires) live. He played this song as his first encore and he opened with Side 2’s first song “Anxiety”, I was transfixed for the 90 minutes or so inbetween.
“Anxiety” starts with a big, fat, almost proggy, guitar riff that then settles into an admission of the kinds of doubts we all suffer from at times (whether we admit to it or not) the lines “It's the weight of the world but it's nothing at all, Light as a prayer and then I feel myself fall” and particularly “Anxiety, Why am I never where I am supposed to be?, Even with my lover sleeping close to me, I'm wide awake and I'm in a pain” express things I know all too well.
“Molotov” comes on equal parts Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and REM and we look to be back in the drinking days.
The album finishes with two of the three songs I highlighted right at the start. “Hope The High Road” breaks out the big fat Southern guitars again and offers hope. It may well be the case that “Last year was a son of a bitch, For nearly every one we know” but by the end of that verse “Wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again to a world you want to live in” and my favourite line on the whole album “We'll ride the ship down, Dumping buckets overboard,There can’t be more of them than us, There can’t be more…” something I’ve been thinking my entire adult life and I’m still waiting, like Jason, to see proof of just that.
“Something To Love” is a song sung to his daughter. It looks back on great times past and wishes y’all the best for the future “Just find what makes you happy girl and do it 'til you're gone”. It also has another of those idealised images I have of the South that likely no longer exists but I’d hope to find should I ever make it there “…old men with old guitars smoking Winston Lights, Old women harmonising with the wind…” a beautiful scene to end on.
There’s love and hope and politics and self doubt, looking back and looking forward all over “The Nashville Sound”. It’s a really, really wonderful record and you might want to give it a try.
If We Were Vampires - https://youtu.be/ivYkyC8J29M?si=IkRCJM1bWI26OzmI