As always, Jason Isbell doesn’t make music that’s easy to analyze, and there likely won’t be a song as universally loved on Reunions like “If We Were Vampires” or “Elephant” from past projects. But in terms of consistency and compelling thematic arcs, Reunions is one of Isbell’s strongest projects yet.
It’s genuinely frustrating that, to what seems like a large group of music fans, Southeastern may as well be Jason Isbell’s debut album.
Granted, it did present a new chapter in his personal and professional life, and it has been the album to frame his work since: from facing his alcoholism head-on through said album, trying to move on from that past on Something More Than Free, and, then, as a father and husband, realizing there’s other battles to fight on The Nashville Sound. The accolades speak for themselves, but what I’ve always loved about Isbell’s work is that he’s an artist conscious of thematic arcs within albums; framing them through personal details, yet letting those messages speak through his characters, too.
Isbell is aware of that, too, hence why the backstory for Reunions came with its own challenges: from him feeling pressured to match those past few albums, loss, and even an uncomfortable fight with wife Amanda Shires when making this album.
Ironically, though, while Reunions is another instance of Isbell confronting his past so as to not repeat those mistakes in the future, it’s also his most tempered project yet. The metaphorical fire is still there, but it’s shifted. It’s an album where his characters are at the forefront more than he himself is, and if he is going to get personal, it’s going to either be through them or by focusing on how his actions affect his daughter. And, with backing band the 400 Unit once again at the helm for this project, the instrumental palette offers the same meaty variety as The Nashville Sound, and with even greater consistency, at that. As for whether, it stands up with his past few projects – which, yes, is fair to assess when even Isbell himself ranks his albums – I can’t say there’s a song that will be as universally loved as “If We Were Vampires” or “Elephant,” but when the overall material here is more relatable (Isbell did want to make this project more accessible, after all), it trades that for consistency anyway.
For as much attention as lead single “Be Afraid” got (for the wrong reasons, if I might add), another irony of Reunions is that it’s his most empathetic project yet. While he acted as the agent of his past actions before, here he’s more of an observer, painting both sides to whatever situation is at hand. Take “Overseas,” for example, where this man’s wife followed her dreams to chase a music career, leaving him and his daughter behind. Yet there’s never any judgment present, even if there’s bitterness in the subtext. If anything, he’s aware of how his own actions might have pushed her away, and when both of them had their own reasons for their respective decisions, there’s no real easy resolution other than having to accept what happened.
And, when taking responsibility is another theme evident in Isbell’s writing, it’s fitting that he’d look at another perspective in that kind of situation and assess how those weighty decisions affect those around us. Sure, the young child caught in the throes of his parent’s divorce on “Dreamsicle” is generally accepting of the situation, but as the song unfolds, that friction between his parents causes him to become more jaded and less understanding, where, again, Isbell isn’t providing an easy resolution.
Even when it’s not presented as argumentative, that theme of duality is what forms this project, too. I love how the little details frame a lot of these stories as they progress, like how “Only Children” amounts to two friends sharing an affinity for writing and a bad past. Yet while one is lucky to escape those bad conditions, the other turns toward a downward spiral, and, like with most of these tracks here, the emotional gambit of the solution is heavy; a mixture of sadness, bitterness and even guilt for the one who did “make it,” so to say. And that manifests, too, on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” framed around the death of Shires’ friend, Neal Casal, and a moment where both her and Isbell handle their grief in different ways.
And that’s the thing with a lack of easy resolutions – it’s not really Isbell’s story to tell anymore. The subtext hides in the domino effect of the themes, where the actions made now will matter later; even tomorrow. He’s at the point where he’s not afraid of that past catching up with him like he was on Something More Than Free, adding an odd sense of levity to tracks like “River” and “It Gets Easier” that I don’t think I’ve heard from him before. He’s still aware it could rush back to him at any point, so he has to hope he’s made the right decisions and set a good enough example for his daughter, because for as much as his performance is tinged with melancholy on “Letting You Go,” he knows she’ll have to make her own set of weighty decisions one day. And those easy answers won’t often fluctuate.
Plus, when Isbell is always the first one to point the finger of blame his way, it still means that darkness follows him, too, in some way, which means that “Be Afraid” is just as much about him holding himself accountable as it is casting blame.
Which segues into my main criticism for this project. Isbell’s writing is the main selling point of any of his projects, of course, but he’s also at his best when there’s a solid anchor to his stories. When he’s operating off mere platitudes, especially tired, familiar ones – like he does on “What’ve I Done To Help,” “River” and “Running With Our Eyes Closed” – I wouldn’t describe any of them as bad, but they aren’t nearly compelling as when those deeper details do emerge.
Part of that has to do with the production and instrumentation, where I’m happy to hear the 400 Unit again, but also feel that Dave Cobb is still learning how to balance out those moments of southern-rock heft. There’s a fantastic swell and snarl to the guitar tones on “Overseas,” but then there’s “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” where the vocal blending feels a bit muddied overall; it never sounds good when the lead singer is less discernible than the backing singers, which especially shows itself in the chorus. And when the burnished production can sometimes stifle the grooves here, it doesn’t help that opener “What I’ve Done To Help” feels like it endlessly drags on.
Of course, it’s also what forms some of the best tracks here: the ghostly swell permeating throughout “Only Children,” the jangly fiddle supporting the drive of the hook on “It Gets Easier,” the pure adrenaline rush of “Be Afraid,” the subtle, gentle interplay of Shires’ fiddle play and the piano on “River,” and even the straightforward country tinges of “Letting You Go” to end that album on a comforting note, even if the song isn’t quite meant to be that.
And since I never directly answered the aforementioned question of whether or not Reunions is better than Isbell’s last few projects … a point of contention, perhaps, but I’d say yes, if only because the stories told feel more relatable on Reunions. It’s an album shaped through faded photographs and old regrets, and here, Isbell is finally willing to come to peace with them. Couple all of that with a fairly compelling sonic palette that’s a tad sharper and realized than before, admist all the chaos that went into making this project, Isbell may have tempered his scope here, but he’s certainly no less compelling.
- Favorite tracks: “Only Children,” “Overseas,” “Dreamsicle,” “It Gets Easier,” “Letting You Go”
- Least favorite track: “Running With Our Eyes Closed”