Pandemics can do funny things to a person’s mind. Dreams can turn strange, with random, poignant memories emerging unbidden from the hidden folds of our brains. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s newest song, “Dreamsicle,” is full of images like those: ice cream melting on fingers in the twilight, fireflies winking in jars, and all the bad things happening under the surface of childhood that kids don’t immediately understand.
Featuring a classic country melody and florid reflections on childhood (“A Dreamsicle on a summer night in a folding lawn chair”), the song dances on the precipice of toothache-worthy, but Isbell’s masterful storytelling adds a layer of shadow that only seems to sharpen it. It’s kind of like how kids in Stephen King novels still say things like “jeezum crow!” even in 2019; the folksy, homespun quality is earned when juxtaposed with monsters. In King’s books, those beasts are more literal; in Isbell’s song, they’re an absentee father “howling at the moon, better get home soon.”
There’s an autobiographic element to the song, as Isbell, who joined his first touring band at age 14, sings, “Broken glass and broken vows/I’ll be 18 four years from now/With different friends in a different town/I’ll finally be free.” Still, there’s a universality to the lyrics that almost makes your heart ache: “New sneakers on the high school court,” “Poison oak and poison ivy/Dirty jokes that blew right by me,” “Hearts breaking through the springtime breaking into June.”
Although our summers will likely be spent in isolation, “Dreamsicle” can at least help us remember the hot seasons of our youth, for good or for ill.
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