critic’s pick: jason isbell and the 400 unit, ‘the nashville sound’

In titling his newest album “The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell has presented us with a puzzler. The record, the first co-billed to his long running 400 Unit band in five years, has about as much in common with Nashville musical practices as a Godzilla movie. But over the last decade, Isbell has stationed himself as one of the most concise, literate and honestly emotive Southern songwriters of his generation. Does the fact he works out of a corporate metropolis known for its assembly line construction of shopworn sentiment suggest a new age for the Nashville artist is at hand? That’s the head scratcher.

We’ll leave such expectations to the future, though. For now, let it be known “The Nashville Sound” is not a country record, although its songs certainly frame a level of country sentiment most 9-to-5 Nashville songwriters are light years removed from. Nor is the record any kind of formulaic throwback to yesteryear when the likes of Billy Sherrill, Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins spearheaded regal Music City sounds all their own.

No, “The Nashville Sound,” is more of the same candid, articulate songwriting that began to define Isbell’s songwriting while he was still playing with the upstart Southern band Drive-By Truckers.

News releases and even interviews for the record infer a return to a louder, more elemental sound that had been lightened somewhat so Isbell’s two recent solo albums – 2013’s “Southwestern” and 2015’s “Something More Than Free” – could expand into more Americana friendly waters. That’s not exactly the case here, though “The Nashville Sound” has its high volume moments, like when wheezing buzzsaw guitars introduce and expound on the downward generational spiral within “Cumberland Cap,” which sounds likes less like Drive-By Truckers and more “Document”-era R.E.M. There is also the electric roll of “Anxiety,” where power chords bash against a restless heart (and brain) before subsiding like an electric sea chantey.

Much of “The Nashville Sound,” however, tucks its discontent and uncertainty inside comparatively relaxed melodic homesteads that would have sounded right at home on “Southeastern” or “Something More Than Free.”

The opening “Last of My Kind” takes it cue from John Prine, a master as masking inner turmoil in sunny, folk friendly atmospherics. Also like Prine, Isbell’s wordplay is deceptively simple with an accessibility as conversational and it is confessional. “Can’t see the stars for the neon lights,” he sings, channeling the mood of a smalltown loner lost in the cold, dismissive expanse of metropolitan life.

Similarly, “If We Were Vampires” and “Molotov,” despite their garish titles, reflect cautionary tales of great vulnerability expressed through a hushed acoustic arrangement (the former) and a roots-savvy sway that sounds like it was borrowed from Tom Petty or Los Lobos.

An epic summer listen, “The Nashville Sound” is an immensely appealing new chapter in Isbell’s Americana reign. But is it truly a forecast of things to come in Music City? We can only hope.

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