Jason Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern was written and recorded in the wake of Isbell’s newfound sobriety, and it often sounded and felt like a musical version of the Fourth Step, in which Isbell took a long, hard look in the mirror as he came to terms with the emotional wreckage he left in his wake during his years as a drunk. By comparison, Something More Than Free, Isbell’s 2015 follow-up, plays out as the work of a man a year or so into his recovery, grateful but still working with the nuts and bolts of living as a better and more mature man while the shadows of the past remain faintly but clearly visible. The opening tune, “If It Takes a Lifetime,” is sung in the voice of a man adjusting to a quiet existence, not in love with every aspect of life as a working stiff but happy to be in a better place, and it sets the stage for a set of songs that move back and forth between past and present as Isbell’s characters deal with lovers they wronged (“How to Forget”), the burdens of family (“Children of Children”), the dignity and restlessness of labor (“Something More Than Free”), and making sense of the responsibilities and disappointments of adult life (“Hudson Commodore” and “The Life You Chose”). Something More Than Free lacks some of the keen focus of Southeastern, in part because it plays on a broader emotional backdrop, and musically the set has a more eclectic feel, with poppier accents and a tone that’s a bit more artful (there also isn’t a full-on rocker here like Southeastern’s “Super 8”). But Something More Than Free makes clear Southeastern was no fluke; the insights Isbell gained as a songwriter are just as evident on these 11 songs, and as a performer he’s attained a nuanced maturity that demonstrates how far he’s come since his days with the Drive-By Truckers (where he already sounded like a prodigy), but without a hint of pretension. Southeastern was a triumph from a talented songwriter and vocalist who stepped up to a new level; Something More Than Free shows Jason Isbell knows he just got there, and is still making use of that hard-won knowledge – it confirms his status as a major artist.
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