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2023 Albums Thing 180 - Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit “Reunions”

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I recall this albums release coming as something of a surprise to me. I read about it just a few days before it was released and I  don’t know how I’d managed to miss the news that it was due. So I didn’t have much time to prepare for it, suddenly it was just there. Leading up to its release Isbell admitted in an interview with the  New York Times that creating it heaped great pressure on him to deliver another great record after making, in his own words “three good records in a row.”. It put extra pressure on his relationship with Amanda Shires as he was struggling under the weight of his self-imposed standards.

“Reunions” doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous 3 records but it’s in no way bad. It’s just that no-one can keep up that level of quality (hell just think of Bowie in the ’80’s). Weirdly, every time I go to play “Reunions” it feels like a chore. I always feel that getting through opening track “What've I Done To Help” feels like that. It has a chorus/refrain that goes “What've I done to help? What've I done to help? Somebody saved me/What've I done to help? What've I done to help, And not myself?” which is fine in itself but when you get to the end of the song it’s repeated and repeated and repeated on and on and on and on for way, way way too long. The song is a shade over 6 and a half minutes long, 3 minutes of it is that chorus/refrain just being repeated until you’re thinking “ALRIGHT ALREADY…GIVE IT UP !”. On my digital copy I’ve edited the song to a much less annoying 4mins 30 to preserve my sanity.

After that it all gets much better. The remainder of Side one is really strong, “Dreamsicle”, “Only Children” and “Overseas” are all strong songs about obviously personal subjects, the first 2 related to childhood the third has a hint of the difficulties of touring as a parent about it. In fairness “What’ve I Done To Help” isn’t a bad song it’s just 2 minutes too long.

Three songs on Side 2 really sum the record up. “St Peter’s Autograph” was written for Amanda Shires after she lost a close friend “Let him dance around our room, Let him smell of your perfume”; in “It Get’s Easier” Isbell once again addresses his ongoing sobriety letting us know “It gets easier, but it never gets easy”; “Letting You Go” lays out his thoughts on becoming a father and how he imagines he’ll cope with his daughter growing up “The best I can do is to let myself trust that you know, Who'll be strong enough to carry your heart”.

There is one thing that really troubles me about “Reunions”, a lot of the guitar work is more than reminiscent of Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler. Now I realise that Isbell is a guitar virtuoso and all that goes with that (he’s a self confessed Knopfler fan) but you really could pick your influences a little better Jason.

It’s another intensely personal set of songs and I’d hate for you to think Jason Isnell’s schtick is nothing but streams of self pity, it’s not, he’s a genuinely great songwriter who has a need to write about what he knows and what’s happening to him. He put himself under pressure due to the quality of his previous 3 albums. “Reunions” doesn’t reach those levels but it’s a good record with two or three songs that would have graced any of those previous three albums.

It Gets Easier - https://youtu.be/2CagbTwPxXw?si=i_Mcw81JYiTPUgy8

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