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.
“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.
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.