White Rabbit Records - Blog

2023 Albums Thing 182 - Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit “Weathervanes”

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Here we are then, completely up to date with Jason Isbell. After “Reunions” and the treading water covers album “Georgia Blue”, plus a twice Covid delayed gig at Manchester Apollo in 2022 that I walked out of after less than an hour as it was just plain boring (I did subsequently discover that he was ill, I’d rather he’d cancelled again), I was wondering if my love affair with Jason Isbell was at an end. 2023’s “Weathervanes” has settled my nerves on that notion, the fella still has “it” when he puts his mind to things.

I have to say that on hearing “Cast Iron Skillet”, the first song that was dripped out via YouTube, I wasn’t sure that he still did. It’s a good enough song but has some lyrics that sound like they came straight out of (Richard Ashcroft’s) rhyming dictionary and the line “Don’t wash the cast iron skillet, That dog bites my kid I’ll kill it” makes me wanna cringe and seriously dislike him in equal measure (I’m very much a dog person, we have 3. I’ve met plenty of kids in my life I didn’t like but never a dog, even the one that bit me). One of the reasons I like Jason Isbell so much are his lyrics and some of them in this song are really painful.

So I was getting doubly nervous when first listening to opening tune “Deathwish”. It’s a skeleton of a song, it sounds like a demo or perhaps like they couldn’t be arsed to finish the arrangement. It’s dull, it starts and ends and it never goes anywhere. These were the two songs that were released on YouTube to herald the albums release, what would in the past would have been known as the lead singles. You’d think the record company and the band would want them to be the ones that would best represent the album. For me these two don’t, at all, and they are my least favourite songs on the record. Thankfully redemption is nigh 

We all have artists that we’re going to stick with, those that we’re going to listen to their new music no matter what. I’ve had that with Bruce Springsteen and Paul Weller over the years (although I have to admit I reached my Weller apogee with “On Sunset”. That and the previous 3 or so albums had been so bad that I’ve not listened to “Fat Pop” and have no plans to do so). So after 8 solo studio albums (I’m not counting “Georgia Blue” as it’s made up of covers) why do I stick with Jason Isbell  ? To me he sits easily in company with Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and John Mellencamp, a great American songwriter trying to find out about his place in the world as much as he wants to tell us about the trials and struggles of ordinary people, something he seems to understand. As with Springsteen I’m on this ride until the end, I get that not everything is going to be “Born To Run” or “Something More Than Free”, Springsteen’s efforts through the 10 years from around 2005 were patchy to say the least, but the diamonds in-between the occasional fools gold shine so bright that it’s always going to be worth listening to what’s going on.

And here comes the first diamond, “King Of Oklahoma” is a killer, ahhh Jason you’re back. It comes on a little REM with lyrics that hold an echo of Springsteen’s “Meeting Across The River”. It’s a working guy, down on his luck, doing whatever he can to make ends meet, legal or otherwise, but Molly is gonna leave and and take the kids and tells him he’s got some “shit to figure out”, it’s classic Isbell.

“Strawberry Woman” gives us beautiful peeks into Southern life “thick cut bacon on Texas toast” and a cowboy with square toed boots who “wouldn’t last five minutes on a pedal steel” all set among some beautiful picking and harmonica to tell us about his girl. “Middle of The Morning” has a lovely lyric that possibly sums up Jason Isbell’s view of himself quite succinctly “I ain’t used to this, seeing everybody’s hand, I was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man”. It makes me see him in a light that I recognise. When people reveal things I’m not ready for I tend to stay quiet on it too. “Save The World” is Jason the Dad pleading with his wife to assure him that she’ll make things OK for their daughter in an increasingly troubled world “Can we keep her here at home instead, Can we teach her how to fight”.

The second half of the record starts with “When We Were Close” a strident, rocking tribute to his late friend Justin Townes Earle who passed away from a drug overdose. Isbell admits in the lyrics “I was the worst of the two of us”. “Volunteer” is a gentle Country waltz with a beaut of a chorus. “Vestavia Hills” puts us back in Birmingham, AL and “This Ain’t It” is a Southern rocker. Closing song “Miles” leads us out more gently on another great chorus (“There's miles between us, But boy, you should've seen us, She was scared to let go of my hand“).

Jason Isbell isn’t for everyone, I understand that, but that thing he does and how he does it works for me. “Weathervanes” is a good album and has some moments that really hit home with me (“She used to wake me up with coffee every morning, And I'd act like I was sleepin' 'til she'd walk back through the door”) and I will be there waiting expectantly on whatever he does next.

King Of Oklahoma - https://youtu.be/GhIQRnl9zJE?si=72rFBvgyceAiD6jc

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