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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions (Album Review)

Wednesday, 27 May 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

The act of revisiting one's chequered past isn’t for the faint of heart. Especially if, in the case of reigning Americana king Jason Isbell, your history of substance abuse led to some pretty dark days. Following three post-sobriety records that charted the Alabama songsmith’s recovery, ‘Reunions’ finds Isbell bravely venturing down memory lane, his characteristically personal, yet universally relatable, storytelling bolstered by a more accessible, polished sound.

Few could deny the former Drive-By Truckers man has truly found his artistic feet as a solo act since exiting rehab in 2012. A multiple Grammy winner teetering on the brink of mainstream success, albums such as ‘Southeastern’ and ‘Something More Than Free’ showcased Isbell’s ability to crystallise pin sharp, poignant sentiments within understated, deceptively tuneful melodies.

Re-teaming with his band, the 400 Unit, and producer Dave Cobb, the blueprint for ‘Reunions’ initially seems like a contradiction. With confronting indiscretions to the narrative forefront, we might have expected a series of stripped back confessionals here.

Yet this is Isbell’s most produced effort to date, its glistening sonics clearly intended to capitalise on the artist’s growing commercial appeal. Does that undermine the songs’ impact? Although a couple flatline, the answer is mostly a resounding no.

Despite some engaging instrumental strokes that colour proceedings nicely, along with meditative existential questioning, What’ve I Done To Help fails to ignite due to being overlong, one-paced and, by its conclusion, boring. Equally, Running With Our Eyes Closed isn’t a particularly gripping story and its uninspired chorus is undone by monotonous repetition.

The point is that the presentation doesn’t matter if the songs are strong enough. Save for those two uncharacteristic missteps, which possibly reflect the pressure Isbell said he felt making this album, the tasteful arrangements and Technicolor sheen on everything, from apathy-bashing rock-thrasher Be Afraid to the delicately empathetic St. Peter’s Autograph, works together to complement the soulful nature of some very fine tunes.

Juxtaposing images of innocence against constantly shifting geography and parental divorce, Dreamsicle’s bittersweet nostalgia is enhanced by tender piano, chiming arpeggios, weeping fiddle strokes and tear-jerking harmonies. The Tom Petty-style Overseas, meanwhile, tackles the painful fallout from abandonment with stunningly visceral guitar work. Finding the sweet spot between Mark Knopfler and Mike Campbell, every ounce of pain is captured by a mesmeric solo hook that is intensely melodic and searingly expressive.

Confronting buried bodies, and how previous actions shape our present and future, is a well rendered literal and metaphoric theme throughout. Whether it’s the heart-wrenching Only Children, which recalls a deceased adolescent friend, River’s tale of an ageing outlaw who casts a sometimes contrite, sometimes unrepentant, eye over past sins, or an addict recollecting shameful behaviour on It Gets Easier, Isbell candidly stares down failings and consequences, showcasing an inherent humanity by refusing to neither demonise nor absolve.

‘Reunions’ may not be quite as consistent and captivating as previous efforts, but with radio ready cuts to wet the eyes, stir the soul and rouse a little righteous indignation, it should cement Isbell’s position as the crossover poster boy for modern day Americana while also reaffirming his status as one of the finest songwriters of this generation.

Jason Isbell Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Tue November 17 2020 - LONDON Eventim Apollo
Wed November 18 2020 - MANCHESTER Albert Hall
Thu November 19 2020 - DUBLIN Olympia Theatre

Click here to compare & buy Jason Isbell Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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