Country Singer Jason Isbell Overcomes His Demons on Brilliant ‘Something More Than Free’: Album Review

Jason Isbell
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As any 12-stepper with a five-, 10- or 20-year chip will tell you, addiction is something you carry around with you, not something you cure. Written in the wake of a battle with ­alcoholism, Jason Isbell's brilliant 2013 Americana album Southeastern marked the ­beginning of the former Drive-By Trucker's own recovery. Whereas that record lived in the ­darkness before the dawn, its follow-up, the achingly good Something More Than Free, captures the mix of excitement and fear that comes when the sun rises on a new day.

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"I keep on showing up/Hell bent on growing up," Isbell sings on opener "If It Takes a Lifetime," ­contemplating a year's worth of sobriety amid ­fiddles skipping over a jaunty beat. That's the kind of record this is: clear-eyed, optimistic, even ­cheerful. It's also exceedingly well crafted, proving Isbell as a much stronger pure-country songwriter than he's generally given credit for. Battling the bottle is part of Nashville's DNA, and much of Something has the same timeless feel as a song like Willie & Merle's "Reasons to Quit" (though it's never as much of a downer as George Jones' "If Drinking Don't Kill Me"). "The hammer needs a nail/And the poor man's up for sale," sings Isbell's blue-collar narrator on the title track, an elegiac ballad that could be a country hit in pretty much any decade. Ditto "Speed Trap Town," about a broken man escaping his past. Palmetto roses, Southern belles and babies making babies are all covered as well. This is country music that knows its country music.

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But it's also Isbell's specific brand of country: ­personal, vivid, literate (don't expect Sam Hunt to rhyme something with "orneriest friend" anytime soon). "24 Frames" is like a flipbook of images that express mortality and the importance of existing in the moment. On "The Life You Chose," Isbell sings, "Are you living the life you chose/Are you living the life that chose you?" It's the kind of question no one ever knows the answer to. Life, for addicts and otherwise, is a big grey area, and this record is about accepting that. As Isbell puts it, "You thought God was an architect, now you know/He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow."

Listen to Jason Isbell and more music from this issue in the Spotify playlist below:

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of Billboard.