Getting Beyond the Black-and-White

It’s funny how important clarity is for us. Like in Hollywood, where a close-up of an object means it’s going to be important, or the end of mystery books, where everything is laid out from start to finish. Any deviation from this kind of clarity feels like a struggle, an obstacle to confront.

Jason Isbell spent six years with the Drive-By Truckers, a southern country/soul band, as one of the three songwriters and singers. In 2007 he left to pursue a solo career, releasing Sirens of the Ditch, an outstanding collection of songs, backed by the rhythm section of the Drive By Truckers. He picked up a band to tour for this album, with Jimbo Hart on bass, Browan Lollar on guitar, Derry deBorja on keys and Chad Gamble playing drums. After almost two years of touring, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit recorded their self-titled album in just two weeks, at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals Alabama. The result is a record that sounds deliberate and tight, with sharp retro production, but a modern feel.

The band sounds great on this album, fresh and purposeful. Gamble’s drumming hearkens back to “Pretty” Purdie and Jimbo Hart knows his role perfectly, from holding down the songs to complementing them with a tasty fill here and there. Isbell’s vocals are strong but sensitive, and fit perfectly with all of the songs, from “Good”, an uptempo rock song to “No Choice in The Matter” which sounds like a modern Otis Redding recording. What’s surprising is that the band can evoke these sensations without using any gimmicks. There’s nothing cliche or nostalgic about the styles of music that they are drawing from. They’ve absorbed the feeling of older music, without abusing it.

It is not, however, a clear record. Isbell’s lyrics don’t always go from A to B to C, and more often than not there are no answers to the questions he asks. Some of the tunes make perfect sense, like “However Long”, a surprisingly militant song about hope and justice, or “Cigarettes and Wine”, the story of finding and losing a great girl. But other tracks on this record are harder to figure out. “Sunstroke” could be about losing a woman, or the consequences of war, or even the responsibility of musicians as artists. “The Last Song I Will Write” is equally hard to understand, it’s full of images of the decline of the working class but it also describes what happens when a mother loses her second husband.

Taken one way, this could easily sound like a criticism. We hold clarity so sacred in our society that saying an album isn’t clear might be an insult. However it feels like quite the opposite to me. Outside of Hollywood’s plot lines things aren’t quite so black and white, and this record attempts to paint a more realistic picture. This complexity, this lack of clarity, has a powerful result. It makes you think.

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at:

LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: