Jason Isbell joins hands with memory in Reunions

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After his last three break-through albums, including Grammy-winning ‘The Nashville Sound’, Jason Isbell had a lot to live up to. It wasn’t a musical acclaim that could ever come without its personal pressures: Isbell and his wife, fellow songwriter and artist Amanda Shires, have opened up about the toll the new album took on their marriage—whilst the passing of country beloved (and the couple’s close friend) John Prine occurred shortly before the album’s release. Yet it feels a little unfair to only associate Isbell’s new album with details of his candour, or to not enter Reunions with a clear, open mind. Though Jason’s past comes creeping up through his lyricism, so do new ‘characters’ (where his songs read like three-minute stories) that achieve a level of wisdom and poignancy achieved by Prine before him.

‘Dreamsicle’ is an early highlight. Jason’s craft as a storyteller unfurls itself in coloured picture frames: ‘a dreamsicle on a summer night in a folding lawn chair’; ‘new sneakers on a high school court’; ‘lightning in an evening sky and my mama’s red hair’. These painted childhood memories bring life to sorrow, finding moments of hope amongst a broken family scene.

‘Only Children’ is just as powerful, and even more haunting. Ghosts follow Isbell throughout Reunions, and here they stand at the centre—in youthful exchanges of written words, narcotics and dreams. On the following, blaring track, ‘Overseas’, Jason begins ‘this used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out’. Small town America feels heartbreakingly captured. The sound of the album seems paired with such memories: Isbell has noted his wish to return to the radio sounds of his childhood—sonically, the album seems a reunion with the 80s pop that might not normally be associated with Isbell’s ‘country folk’ label.

The strength of the album’s A-side allows a small dwindle in some of what follows. After ‘The Nashville Sound’s tender ode to his daughter, ‘Something to Love’, Reunions closer track ‘Letting You Go’ feels a little obvious, recalling the day of his daughter’s birth to sparse, affectionate instrumentals. It’s only Isbell’s own past brilliance that casts these kinds of comparisons. His choice to turn to memory and youth—but this time with no ghosts—gives a hopeful tone to the meaning of ‘reunions’ but does so with a little less poignancy than expected. Nonetheless, elsewhere Isbell’s lyricism plays out as strong as ever.

Eight years since Isbell got sober and got focused on a new life of marriage, music and fatherhood, he still battles with the temptation of drink: ‘it gets easier, but it never gets easy’ he cries on the powerful penultimate track. Isbell is consistently candid with his struggle of sobriety even as the years slip by; but now he has the tally marks tattooed on his arm to mark them.

Though these personal shadows thread their way into the album, Isbell’s ability to sit himself inside someone else’s story proves more meaningful than ever—even as things around him may seem ready to crumble. As a songwriter, he moves steadily between the two, uniting the real and the fable, as he joins hands with the past. We can only hope that soon, Isbell will be reunited with his fans, touring his seventh soaring album—both to those who have followed him through it all, and those who continue to discover him as amongst the songwriters of a generation.

4 / 5 STARS

KATE WASSELL