Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free

Roots rocker deepens his lyrical perspective on an album full of complicated characters

Credit: Trent McGinn and Hilary Walsh

With his honeysuckle drawl and unrivaled knack for lyrical detail, Jason Isbell is arguably the most revered roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation. On his latest, Isbell, 36, sings plenty about romantic dedication and past recklessness, familiar territory that the singer mined to great success on his 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern. But this time around, he trades in that album's personal tales of crisis and redemption for a more nuanced, wide-angled form of storytelling, packed to bursting with evocative specifics: "Jack and Coke in your momma's car/You were reading The Bell Jar."

The Alabama-raised songwriter's new collection, set to his trademark country-tinged soft rock, is populated with everyday snapshots from the modern South — from the young man fleeing his too-small hometown in "Speed Trap Town" to the law-defying South Carolinian telling a "bullshit story about the Civil War" on the murky blues rocker "Palmetto Rose." On the latter, Isbell ponders hundreds of years of national history with conflicting shame and pride, before arriving at a very American conclusion: "I follow my own free will," he sings, "and I take in my fill." It's a master class in songwriting from an artist who's never sounded more confident.