There's a lot of buzz that the new Jason Isbell album, Something More Than Free, might be better than Southeastern. Barry Mazor suggested in the Wall Street Journal that Isbell has "the goods" to be a "James Taylor- or Paul Simon-level singing, songwriting star." He missed John Prine, but other than that he's dead-on.
I don't know about better, but Something More Than Free is very different and at least equally brilliant. Most strikingly, this is a less angry album than Southeastern—there are straight-up love songs on here, mixed in with Isbell's bread-and-butter chronicling of rural-route suffering. "Speed Trap Town" is a masterpiece, the poster child for Isbell's particular brand of intimate storytelling—maybe even the heir apparent to the hard edges and tender underbelly of "Outfit." "Palmetto Rose" is a deft exploration of the kind of disassociation of symbology that has concerned Southern writers as smart as Percy (Walker) since long before we were arguing how appropriate it is to display the Stars and Bars (there's a line in here about "a bullshit story about the Civil War"). The two singles, the title track and the almost-poppy "24 Frames," are probably my listener's favorites off the record, but it's uniformly strong. Dave Cobb produced (think: Southeastern, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton), and the same kind of dynamic, unobtrusive handling of the material is in evidence here. Support your artists, folks: Go buy this one.
Notably, not everyone has gotten their coverage of this smart, complex album quite right. The New Yorker ran the kind of high-brow not-quite-a-think-piece drabble that only the New Yorker can get away with that asked Isbell the ultimate parochial New Yorker question: "Is it a burden for a songwriter with progressive values to represent the South in his music?"
If I read one more nose-in-the-air Yankee intellectual asking Isbell if it’s hard to be a thinking man in the South, I’m going to secede myself. The South has been turning out progressive thinkers since most of those writers were just bullshit prep school kids—and before. For God’s sake, the youngest-ever editor of Harper’s—in the vaulted canyons of the city—was a Yazoo County ex-pat (fighting "the old warring impulses to be both Southern and American"). To say the least of WG Cash, Erskine Caldwell and Walker Percy (can't say the same for his uncle, whose piece de resistance is the bible by the bedside table of the new South’s country club elite). More recently: the guys over at The Bitter Southerner are doing a pretty good job of championing who's saying brilliant things below the Mason-Dixon Line.
The point being: We ain’t all dumb rednecks, New Yorker, STFU. This is a smart Southern album but for Christ's sake, it's not the only smart thing coming out of the South.
Rant over. Also out recently was Watkins Family Hour's eponymous debut, which is as good as you would want it to be, an interesting marriage between Warren Haynes and Railroad Earth (that on reflection makes perfect sense) and a new Turnpike Troubadours track. Lindi Ortega's new record, out today, features a standout co-write/duet with John Paul White (Civil Wars), recorded in Muscle Shoals. Plus: A throwback to one of my favorite albums of early 2015, honeyhoney's 3. "Big Man" is probably my favorite single track on this week's list.