Album Review: Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit - Reunions (2020)
By Sergio Ariza
The Winning Streak Continues
Jason Isbell is one of the most respected artists within alternative country, especially since he quit drinking and released the excellent Southeastern in 2013. Since then he has released the also remarkable Something More Than Free in 2015 and then The Nashville Sound, two years later, along with his band 400 Unit. Now the streak continues with Reunions in which he is accompanied by 400 Unit again, for the fourth time in his career.
Isbell once again is very open and sincere in his lyrics, talking about personal issues, such as staying sober, his marriage to his bandmate Amanda Shires and the birth of their daughter, and developing others from them. Musically, he continues to find a place among the greats of the genre, although this time he sounds more rock, reminiscent of his time as a member of the Drive-By-Truckers, thanks to the support of the 400 Unit, made up of Shires, the fiddle and second voice, Derry deBorja, on keyboard, Chad Gamble on drums, Jimbo Hart on bass and Sadler Vaden on guitar.
The album opens with What I've Done To Help, on which he probably plays his Martin D18, of which he has his own model. It's a calm track with an excellent performance by the band, attention to Hart's bass and the slide that starts to shine at the end. In the song Isbell asks what he has done to help and from listening to it we could say that it is something that is not asked lightly. When the album was released in the middle of the pandemic, Isbell decided to sell it exclusively to independent stores to help them. He also added, in the first copies, an autograph on a print of his most mythical guitar, the 59 Les Paul ‘Red Eye', which had belonged to Ed King, former Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The album continues to move through quiet territory with Dreamsicle, a bittersweet song about childhood memories. Next comes what is probably the best song on the entire album, Only Children, a somber track about a young aspiring artist couple, with carefully constructed lyrics, and an unforgettable melody: "Hydrocodone in your backpack, Maybe these words will hold the beast back, And will you read me what you wrote? The one I said you stole from Dylan, Over-encouraged, only children."
Overseas begins with Isbell's '60 Stratocaster Sunburst taking center stage, a start that could have appeared alongside some of the wonders he did with the Drive-By-Truckers, recalling that southern rock is part of his baggage as well. Despite all this, a feeling of melancholy still permeates everything. In Running with Our Eyes Closed there are echoes of the Springsteen of Tunnel Of Love, although one could also talk about the Dire Straits of Brothers In Arms. Be Afraid is another highlight; a song which rails against those Southerners who started shouting "Shut up and sing" when he began to express his political views. It's a song full of rage, but a liberating rage: "And we don't take requests, we won't shut up and sing, if you tell the truth enough you find it rhymes with everything.” In the video of their recording we can see two more weapons from his tremendous guitar arsenal, a Gretsch 6131 Firebird and a '65 Telecaster.
The album closes with two more beautiful tracks, first comes It Gets Easier, a reflection on alcohol abstinence, "Last night I dreamed that I'd been drinking, Same dream I have 'bout twice a week, I had one glass of wine, I woke up feeling fine, And that's how I knew it was a dream.” The refrain is compelling as he makes his message clear: "It gets easier but it never gets easy”. The band shines again on another of the album's more rocky tracks, with excellent work on all six strings. Finally comes Letting You Go, a song that musically brings you closer to the great composers of the genre; people like Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. The steel pedal gives it the most country feel of the album, something that chimes well with the lyrics in which a father has to step aside for his daughter to find happiness elsewhere.
Reunions proves once again that Isbell is one of the greats of alternative country music, one of the men who best continues to distill the flavors of the America most attached to his roots, to his deepest and most spiritual music, but like all great composers, he does it by making each song his own.