Considering it took about three years for Jason Isbell’s 2007 debut Sirens of the Ditch to come together, and that his songwriting contributions to Drive-By Truckers were sometimes few and far between, it is surely with a sigh of relief that fans receive his second output, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. While this time around Isbell has managed a much tighter, complete album than the sprawling, disjointed Sirens, his self-titled 2009 release is far from satisfying.
The opener, “Seven-Mile Island,” is a near-perfect slice of everything there is to love about Isbell. Generally speaking, Isbell’s sound tends not to be as easy to place as some would like; he’d never last on contemporary country, and will never have much indie-cred. “Seven-Mile Island” moves precisely in that vein, and establishes straight away the impact playing with one band has on Isbell this time around, after piecing together numerous contributors on Sirens. Matt Pence (Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel), who also produced, brings a new percussive rhythm, a certain departure from Brad Morgan’s (Drive-by Truckers, Sirens of the Ditch) straight-ahead pace. Pence’s irregular beat backs keyboards, guitars and dobro that set the mood perfectly for Isbell’s story of an unwanted pregnancy.
The essential dilemma on the album is that following the opener, the pace slows nearly to a crawl more than once. “Cigarettes and Wine” recalls “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades” too much, and “No Choice in the Matter” carries on past it’s welcome. “Good” is a bit familiar, possibly even slightly generic. But the one thing that can’t be denied, and has in fact been brought up again and again in other reviews, is that Isbell is possibly the best songwriter of his generation. Lyrically, he is as on-point as one could fathom. Isbell himself is fond of mentioning writers’ ability to “turn a phrase.” If that’s the measuring stick, he has reached the end of it, and kept going.
Like many sophomore albums, The 400 Unit features a few references to life on the road and the pressures of writing. “Streetlights” places us in the eyes of traveler with too many drinks in him and too many people to miss. “And the chairs go up on the bar now/ and the table lights go black/ so I order one more double and start calling people back.” One of Isbell’s great talents, and one he shares with most great writers, is his ability to take well-trod subject matter, and not only make it his own, but twist it in a way that makes it new again. Having set the scene in the bar, he expertly moves us through the mind of a lonely, road-worn man, turning those phrases all along. “In my pocket directions back across the railroad tracks to where I crash/ Maybe I should wave down a car I wont be going far and I’ve got cash/ Think I blocked just a park away but I cant really say/ It’s been all night.”
This a good album from a very good musician and excellent writer. Browan Lollar’s guitar is a perfect match for Isbell’s style, and bassist Jimbo Hart moves through each song thoughtfully. Keyboardist Derry deBorja (Son Volt) asserts himself on numerous tracks, driving a few hooks and adding needed layers. Even if this doesn’t quite fully capture Isbell’s seemingly endless potential for greatness, it offers enough peeks at it to be worth the price and to keep us waiting for more.