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

Thursday, 22 June 2023 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Danny Clinch

Everything you need to know about this deeply humane record from Jason Isbell, which delivers character-driven storytelling of the highest calibre, can be gleaned from the album’s opening and closing lines. Beginning with ‘everybody dies, but you gotta find a reason to carry on’ and culminating by way of ‘you didn’t see the hand that turned the page’, ‘Weathervanes’ is an unflinching exploration of how people struggle to survive after life’s cruel winds have torn through their world.

Although an inescapable air of death fuels this self-produced follow up to 2020’s troubled ‘Reunions’, it’s not necessarily in the literal and final sense. Losing people might play a key role in many of the characters’ lives, but there’s a strong subtextual feeling that those left behind are worse off, almost suffering a living death due to unavoidable or self-inflicted circumstances. 

Take the ‘Nebraska’-styled King of Oklahoma or gently mesmerising Cast Iron Skillet. Where the former finds an injured working man succumbing to addiction and crime to pay the bills, the latter presents a racist father who suffers estrangement from his beloved daughter as a result of such ingrained prejudice. 

Whether drawing characters who might be perceived as paper-thin monsters or hapless losers in other hands, not to mention tackling subjects other artists wouldn’t dare, Isbell never points fingers or condemns. Instead, the songwriter has created a series of three dimensional figures whose backgrounds and traumas have left them tragically adrift, victims of themselves and fate in a world they no longer recognise and fit into. 

Tackling everything from abortion (White Beretta) and toxic masculinity (Middle of the Morning), to survivor’s guilt (When We Were Close), this isn’t an album for people whose primary survival strategy is wilful ignorance. But, in spite of depicting such darkness, ‘Weathervanes’ is a wonderfully endearing listen thanks to its creators’ profound empathy and how warm and inviting the 400 Unit have made it sound. 

Rendering such compassion musical, partly by way of mellifluous melodies and impassioned vocals, whether through Amanda Shires’ weeping fiddle, consoling harmonica or flirtatious interplay between Isbell and Sadler Vaden’s six-strings, the record’s windswept Americana palette is often tender, sweet and sympathetic without sacrificing pathos.

That’s not to say everything sounds as beautiful as Strawberry Woman. Death Wish finds a self-medicated loved one descending into mental health purgatory over an ominous swell of tense textures and desperate string flurries. Elsewhere, the ghostly overcast storm of Save The World soundtracks a harrowing take on fatherhood in the era of regular school shootings, and epic album closer Miles, which begins like Tom Petty riffing on the Beatles, unexpectedly prowls into a dramatic, mid-tempo confessional about relationship monotony and passive aggressive coping strategies.

There’s always been a specious belief musicians need to be tortured to craft something like ‘Weathervanes’, but that’s not the case here. Recalling Isbell’s Running With Our Eyes Closed documentary, which candidly showed the singer buckling under the weight of creative pressure, and his and Shires’ marital difficulties during the ‘Reunions’ sessions, it’s telling that the album subsequently missed the mark. In contrast, he’s admitted to being in a much better place now, something that’s clearly allowed his artistry to fire on all cylinders throughout this glorious, bittersweet masterpiece.

Jason Isbell Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu June 22 2023 - LAGRANGE Georgia - Sweetland Amphitheatre at Boyd Park (USA)
Fri June 23 2023 - BIRMINGHAM AL Alabama - Avondale Brewing Company (USA)
Sat June 24 2023 - BIRMINGHAM AL Alabama - Avondale Brewing Company (USA)
Sun June 25 2023 - ANN ARBOR Michigan - Hill Auditorium (USA)
Thu June 29 2023 - STANFORD California - Frost Amphitheater (USA)
Sat July 01 2023 - BEND Oregon - Hayden Homes Amphitheater (USA)
Sun July 02 2023 - CANBY Oregon - Clackamas County Event Center (USA)
Tue July 04 2023 - BONNER Montana - KettleHouse Amphitheater (USA)
Wed July 05 2023 - SEATTLE Washington - Woodland Park Zoo (USA)
Thu July 06 2023 - SPOKANE - Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox (USA)
Sat July 08 2023 - SALT LAKE CITY - Red Butte Garden (USA)
Sun July 09 2023 - DILLON Colorado - Lake Dillon Amphitheatre (USA)
Tue July 11 2023 - TEMPE Arizona - Marquee Theatre (USA)
Wed July 12 2023 - SAN DIEGO California - Humphreys Concerts By the Bay (USA)
Fri July 14 2023 - LOS ANGELES California - Greek Theatre (USA)
Sat July 15 2023 - PASO ROBLES California - Vina Robles Amphitheatre (USA)
Sun July 16 2023 - LAS VEGAS - Encore Theater At Wynn Las Vegas (USA)
Wed July 26 2023 - HARRISBURG Pennsylvania - Riverfront Park - Harrisburg (USA)
Thu July 27 2023 - BOSTON Massachusetts - Roadrunner (USA)
Fri July 28 2023 - PORT CHESTER New York - Capitol Theatre Port Chester (USA)
Mon July 31 2023 - HUNTINGTON New York - Paramount (USA)
Tue August 01 2023 - NEW BRUNSWICK New Jersey - State Theatre New Brunswick (USA)
Wed August 02 2023 - VIENNA Virginia - Filene Center at Wolf Trap (USA)
Fri August 04 2023 - TORONTO - Massey Hall - Allied Music Centre (USA)
Sat August 05 2023 - LEWISTON New York - Artpark Mainstage Theater (USA)
Sun August 06 2023 - GRAND RAPIDS Michigan - Frederik Meijer Gardens Amphitheater (USA)
Tue August 08 2023 - RICHMOND Virginia - Browns Island (USA)
Wed August 09 2023 - SALEM Virginia - Salem Civic Center (USA)
Fri August 11 2023 - ASHEVILLE North Carolina - Rabbit Rabbit (USA)
Sat August 12 2023 - SAINT AUGUSTINE - St Augustine Amphitheatre (USA)
Sun August 13 2023 - NORTH MYRTLE BEACH South Carolina - House of Blues Myrtle Beach (USA)
Fri September 08 2023 - IOWA CITY Iowa - Hancher Auditorium (USA)
Sun September 10 2023 - MOORHEAD - Bluestem Center for the Arts (USA)
Tue September 12 2023 - MILWAUKEE Wisconsin - Riverside Theater (USA)
Thu September 14 2023 - SHREVEPORT Louisiana - Shreveport Municipal Memorial Auditorium (USA)
Fri September 15 2023 - NEW ORLEANS - Orpheum Theatre - New Orleans (USA)
Sat September 16 2023 - MEMPHIS Tennessee - Radians Amphitheater At Memphis Botanic Garden (USA)
Sat October 07 2023 - RALEIGH North Carolina - Red Hat Amphitheater (USA)
Thu October 12 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Fri October 13 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Sat October 14 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Sun October 15 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Thu October 19 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Fri October 20 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Sat October 21 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)
Sun October 22 2023 - NASHVILLE Tennessee - Ryman Auditorium (USA)

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