Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

“Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit” is a mystery. The first time I heard it, the last time, and the countless times in between, it sounded both uncannily familiar and absolutely fresh. I can explain that a little – and I can suggest some of the issues and emotions the music raises — but when all is said and done, the record remains a mystery. And I believe that’s deliberate.

Isbell and his band begin with what we know. From the first song’s near-Bo Diddley beat to the last one’s slow bluesy guitar work, the cd keeps turning up fragments of music we recognize. There’s a list of sources that leap to mind, and maybe they’re worth listing just to suggest what the record sounds like: Otis Redding, the Allman Brothers, the Drive-By Truckers (Isbell was a member for a few years), Percy Sledge, Merle, Aretha, Lynard Skynard. You get organ builds and horn lines that might be from Muscle Shoals and the kind of condensed, precise guitar solos that Steve Cropper made famous. And Isbell’s melodies seem to start up where “Dark End of the Street” left off.

There’s no hiding this and no need to; the record freely admits to its roots. But to point them out is like saying, “You look like your mother with maybe your grandfather’s eyes.” Accurate enough, but you aren’t either one of them. That’s just the jumping off point: the familiar that leads to the fresh.

What it sounds like to me is that soul music, southern rock, and outlaw country form a kind of beloved history for Isbell and his band. A benchmark. He starts up where they left off, where the needle lifted. The question the record asks is how we proceed from there.

The musical footholds are valuable (someone’s left pitons sunk into a mountain’s sheer rock face; you’re sure as hell gonna use them), and there are other familiar techniques the band uses. It took me a lot of listens until I realized that “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit” is organized like an LP record: with an A side and a B side. That’s hard to tell when you don’t have to turn the music over, but I think it’s there. We get five songs, then a short instrumental called “Coda,” then five more songs.

Listen to it that way, and you notice the first half is full of New Testament references. That may just be Isbell’s manner of speech – the context he comes from — but they do keep cropping up. First cut: “Take my body to Seven-Mile Island… Take your shoes off and walk across the water.” The second cut begins: “They tell me you walk on the water now // I know who showed you the stones.” Third cut is less specific, but it’s all about giving in to sin: “Are you waiting in the wrong line? Kicking off a slow climb? //… Guess the devil wouldn’t have you.” Fourth cut, our narrator meets a woman bartender: “Wings on her shoulders and feet, a bar on Gethsemane Street.” Fifth cut: “See the man’s got too much to count // try to recollect the sermon on the mount // Blessed are the poor when they’re all swinging from the gallows.”

Then comes “Coda,” which turns out to be lifted from the last song on the album: a snippet of the destination/anthem we’re heading towards.

I don’t mean to scare anybody off by suggesting this is primarily a “concept album” or some sort of literary music. In fact, I spent months loving what I heard without hearing or understanding more than a few of the lyrics. Isbell has a North Alabama vocal style part twang, part slur: words get swallowed and smeared till they’re almost private. Plus, the music is so densely rich and full of hooks, you can listen for a long time without needing to know what’s being said. For example, you go from the barroom ballad “Cigarettes and Wine,” which tortures you with the slow regularity of its beat (like carefully running a bare hand down barbed wire) right into “However Long,” which lifts into a soaring amen chorus at the top of Isbell’s range.

But it’s music with a purpose – you can hear that in the often single-minded, on-beat drumming – and I do think that sonically as well as lyrically it keeps coming back to the same set of problems. Once you’re hooked, and you start wondering what the hell has got you listening so hard, it’s like: “Hmmm, this band is working on something. Different as each song is, they’re all crossing the same landscape.” And I’ve come to think there’s a set of beliefs – or former beliefs – that tie the record together

I want to say Isbell is working in that rich Southern tradition of lost faith and defeat. But while that may be geographically accurate, these days there’s no one region that can claim priority in that department. To me, the album speaks in the stubborn voice of Detroit and New Orleans and a thousand small towns that are dying slow deaths.

After “Coda,” the second half of the cd kicks off with this line: “Don’t roll away that stone, girl// Leave it where it lay.” There will be no resurrection here. Instead, the song ends with Isbell repeating in his mournful voice: “Dance so I don’t have to think.” And the tune that follows – a slow country waltz — declares as a simple fact of life: “The woman that lays down beside you,// she can’t help or hide you.” If the first half of the record sets us in a world gone wrong, the second half talks about trying to live in it. “There ain’t nothing sadder than a man in the throes of something real.” Well, yes. And also nothing braver. In many ways, this is a collection of songs that begins with the loss of faith — not necessarily in God but in happy endings, in promises. The 30 year-old Isbell takes as a given that things are fucked. It’s a post-faith record.

I don’t want to and couldn’t lead you through all the variations on this: the sense of aching in the vocals, the confused psychedelic swirl in the song called “Sunstroke,” or the recurring theme of the soldier returning home as outcast (recurring from the earlier Isbell record as well). “It’s not the dreams that keep you up late,” Isbell sings. “It’s not the world you saw incinerate//… It’s just that a soldier gets strange.”

That strangeness is familiar to us now – solider and civilian – in the same way the roots of Isbell’s music are. I think that’s one of the records deep if unspoken parallels. It ties a great era of classic country/rock with an era of doubt, of asking hard questions. The cd isn’t the slightest bit nostalgic, nor does it suggest that a former generation’s music is better than today’s, or that the world had more meaning back then. Instead, both musically and lyrically, it reminds us of the struggle that got us this far. It suggests that one of the things we’ve achieved is the ability to take a sober and sobering look at our beliefs. And that if we’re true to that history, we can’t return to romantic (and religious?) notions that our parents and grandparents fought to get out from under. The last line of the penultimate song called “Streetlights” is: “Pretty soon you’ll remember when you could remember when you loved someone.”

But that sounds like there’s not much hope in this music, and part of what’s mysterious is that it’s just the opposite. The last song of the record (called “The Last Song I Will Write”) includes the line: “This ain’t the world we signed up for.” The promises of the past – whether the promises of the New Testament or of the great soul cries of Otis Redding – didn’t exactly pan out. But if this ain’t that new world, it might be; it holds the echoes of that world. And they are as strong and lasting as a chorus resolving in a minor chord. “There’s nothing you can say or do to us to drown out this amen,” Isbell sings mid-way through his record. And the last line of the last song is: “I’m crawling away to the sea.” Followed by penetrating, inspired guitar that sounds like nothing less than survival.

Against the bleakness of the lyrics, the music provides this constant, almost matter-of-fact tenacity. While the last song specifically addresses “You who work up on your feet,” that’s where the whole record feels like it’s coming from. And that’s the kind of survival it evokes. Isbell and his band have made their music with the modesty, the care, and the stubbornness of people getting through a day’s work in the most honorable way possible. No easy answers, no solutions, but the hardest and best questions they can come up with.

On some basic level, I think it’s a mystery how we do that — how we get through each day. This record is that mystery.

DANIEL WOLFF lives in Nyack, N.Y. His newest book is How Lincoln Learned to Read. His other books include 4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land and You Send Me: the Life and Times of Sam Cooke. He is a co-producer of the forthcoming Jonathan Demme documentary about New Orleans, “Right to Return.” He can be reached at: ziwolff@optonline.net

Daniel Wolff’s most recent books are Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and How to Become an American: a History of Immigration, Assimilation and Loneliness.