In a recent interview with GQ, Jason Isbell reflected on what it was like when he heard his new album, “Reunions,” for the first time.
“When we were mixing it and I was listening back to mixes at the end I thought, man, almost every song has a ghost,” Isbell said during the interview. “In the ghost stories that actually mean something, it’s somebody that you’ve known in your past so you are reuniting in a way with that person.
Isbell’s work is no stranger to ghosts. In previous songs and albums, he’s dealt with finality and the death of versions of his own personality. With “Reunions,” ghosts and the creeping past are front and center in the artist’s mind, resulting in an album that may not reach the heights of Isbell’s best work but is worthwhile all the same.
Opening with “What’ve I Done to Help,” an amplified bit of self-reflection doubling as social activism, “Reunions” also marks Isbell’s continued transition into a more political realm. Isbell’s politics have become an increasing part of his public persona, particularly after he was labeled as a member of the “unhinged left” by the National Republican Senate Committee for playing a concert in support of Tennessee Democratic politician, Phil Bredesen.
When he’s at his best as a songwriter, Isbell’s lyrics rely on a level of nuance and subtlety that feels borderline impossible when approaching political conversation. As a result, “What’ve I Done To Help” somewhat flounders while another politically charged song on the album, “Be Afraid” succeeds.
Instead of struggling with the vagaries of self-improvement and social isolation, “Be Afraid” is a call to arms directed at all other performers to increase their level of activism. While blatant in its message, “Be Afraid” has the kind of energy that feels sorely missing on other tracks, giving it a kind of guitar-infused excitement that Isbell’s carried over from his previous work with his former band, the Drive-By-Truckers.
When “Reunions” is at its best, however, Isbell’s looking inward with the kind of specificity and emotion that’s made him one of the most critically acclaimed American songwriters in recent memory. On “Dreamsicle,” Isbell’s finite focus on detail and tone fuels a brilliant mix of nostalgia and domestic turmoil. By reflecting with such clarity, Isbell paints a beautiful vision of a confused childhood memory where trauma and joy combine.
With the song “Saint Peter’s Autograph,” Isbell manages to focus his talent for precise reflection on another subject: recently deceased guitarist Neal Casal. Casal, who died by suicide in 2019, was a famed musician who was a close personal friend of Isbell’s wife, country singer Amanda Shires.
In “Saint Peter’s Autograph,” Isbell speaks directly to Shires’ sadness and mourning, creating a sympathetic offer of understanding. When Isbell writes, “What do I do to let you know / That I’m not haunted by his ghost / Let him dance around the room / Let him smell of your perfume,” the listener can fully process not only Shires’ grief but also Isbell’s own inability in the face of crisis.
Isbell’s relationship with Shires and ensuing sobriety have all become a part of his own public narrative, which he wrestles with constantly in his work. With “It Gets Easier,” Isbell dives headfirst into his struggles being sober and the strain it's placed on his family life by painstakingly detailing his daily fears of relapsing. Even in his most crowd-pleasing work, these themes of romance and addiction have always been at the forefront, like with the 2013 song “Cover Me Up” and his work on the 2018 movie, “A Star Is Born.”
With Isbell’s increasing popularity from his more commercial work, “Reunions” serves as a strange, interesting choice; “Reunions” doesn’t have any songs resembling commercial hits or even Isbell’s more palatable work. Instead, the album feels thoroughly complicated, filled with songs that take multiple listens to reckon with, let alone enjoy.
In that way, Isbell continues to draw comparisons to the critically beloved, idiosyncratic work of ’70s country songwriters like Townes Van Zandt or, most notably, John Prine. Prine, who passed away recently from coronavirus complications, has always been the prevailing influence on Isbell’s work, approaching songwriting with a combination of literary sophistication and everyman, country appeal. With the song “River,” Isbell’s almost paying homage to Prine’s style, crafting a song that feels like a carbon copy of the singer’s spoken-word style and poetic vernacular.
But, Isbell’s personal struggles and contemplations remain the core of “Reunions” appeal. In arguably the best song of the album, “Only Children,” Isbell thinks back on the younger version of himself, remembering his darkest moments of addiction while at a close friend’s funeral. When Isbell sings, “Or are you locked in some old building / With over encouraged, only children,” it’s hard not to think of his own relationship to parenthood, which he explores on the album’s final song “Letting You Go.”
Whether or not “Reunions” lives up to Isbell’s extraordinarily high standards may be difficult to say at this point. While never reaching the heights of “Southeastern” or 2017’s “The Nashville Sound,” “Reunions” does relay a sense of professionalism and mastery that gives each song a remarkably high floor.
Isbell’s career is based on a bold attempt at translating difficult emotional sentiments to mass country and folk audiences. While “Reunions” may not be palatable for everyone, Isbell’s sentiment and skill as a storyteller is still on display for those who chose to listen.
Contact Chris Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.