“Am I the last of my kind?” Jason Isbell ponders on his new album, The Nashville Sound. Isbell, who hails from the Muscle Shoals region of Northwest Alabama, is singing, as he often does, in character, this time a down-and-out survivor struggling to play catch up with the rapidly changing country he calls home. But “Last of My Kind” could also be a tagline for Isbell himself, who, with his lyrics-heavy, unadorned narrative storytelling approach to roots music, has become one of the few remaining artists to find mainstream success building a career off the model of the Seventies singer-songwriter.
The Nashville Sound follows in the wake of Isbell’s 2013 breakthrough Southeastern and its 2015 follow-up Something More Than Free, albums that introduced the former Drive-By Truckers third-man to a larger audience with their tales of drunken demons and fresh beginnings. But after spending the last five years reckoning with past darkness, Isbell, 38, shifts his gaze outward. He pledges everlasting faith to his wife on the tearjerker “If We Were Vampires,” offers parental advice on the backyard bluegrass of “Something to Love,” and delivers an urgent warning to the white male demographic, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump, on “White Man’s World.”
Musically, The Nashville Sound hints
at Isbell’s bar band roots on up-tempo rockers like “Cumberland Gap”
and “Hope the High Road. Nevertheless, bursts of loud release from his
band the 400 Unit are still far and few between on an album that ultimately
hews closely to the laid-back roots-country palette Isbell has honed over his
past several albums with producer Dave Cobb. Yet, on moments like the Elliott
Smith-inspired meandering melody on “Chaos and Clothes,” or the
slow-building, orchestral guitar freakout on “Anxiety,” Isbell points
to a more expansive musical future, one where he’s free to indulge his whims,
fully unburdened by the notion that he’s the last of a dying breed.