Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
with special guest Billy Strings
What happens after an artist has achieved his dreams? That was the major question Jason Isbell was asking himself leading up to the creation of his newest album, Reunions, recorded with the 400 Unit and produced by celebrated producer Dave Cobb. After all, four-time Grammy winner Isbell is at the top of his game. He is widely acclaimed as one of our best songwriters and possesses a devoted audience who have pushed his last two albums to the tops of the charts.
“Success is a very nice problem to have but I think ‘how do I get through it and not lose what made me good in the first place?’” he says. “A lot of these songs and the overall concept of this album is how do I progress as an artist and a human being and still keep that same hunger that I had when I wasn’t quite so far along in either respect.” Isbell’s solution: to go back in time with his hard-gained knowledge. The result is a seamless collection of ten new songs that delve into relationships with lovers, friends, children, parents, and one’s self. There are rousing anthems that will have stadiums singing along, lyrical standouts that highlight some of Isbell’s best writing to date, moving looks at youth and childhood, a deep dive into the challenges of relationships, and deeply personal songs about alcoholism and parenthood. All of them offer us an artist at the height of his powers and a band fully charged with creativity and confidence.
Why the title Reunions? There are a lot of ghosts on this album. Sometimes the songs are about the ghosts of people who aren’t around anymore, but they’re also about who I used to be, the ghost of myself. While writing I was thinking about how I could take the tools I have now, which are much better than the tools I had then, and go about building the same essential structure. I found myself writing songs that I wanted to write fifteen years ago but in those days I hadn’t written enough songs to know how to do it yet. I was also still drinking and I didn’t have enough focus. Just now have I been able to pull it off to my own satisfaction. In that sense it’s a reunion with the me I was back then.
Yet in going back to some old ghosts you also created a whole new sound. How did that happen? That was intentional, because I felt like we had made a statement with Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and The Nashville Sound. Those albums are looking at what happens post happy ending. They’re saying “I survived—now what?” So I wanted to make something different. Still, I didn’t want to do a 180 degree turn thematically. I didn’t want to be different just for the sake of being different. It all has to serve my own development as a person. This record probably gets closer to the music I actually like to listen to than anything I’ve done in the past.
This new sound feels bigger, more layered and expansive. A lot of that had to do with the production. I told Dave we wanted something that sounded very different than anything we’d done before. He brought in a lot of new gear and spent a lot of time working on the mix and really shot for a more high fidelity sound than anything he’s ever produced. We wanted it to transport the listener, to create a mood and take you to a different place in the way a record by The Rolling Stones, or The Smiths, or The Cure is able to do.
What makes you and Dave Cobb such a good team? His instincts are incredible. He’s really quick with good ideas, and he’s very hands on. Dave doesn’t sit in the control room; he comes out on the floor and plays something, he participates with everybody. So you don’t feel like you’re being judged by a producer as much as you’re collaborating with him, and that makes it really nice for everybody. Dave is also naturally gifted with the ability to come up with the direction or a sound very quickly and I don’t like to spend a whole awful lot of time in the studio so that’s a valuable asset.
Just as with the last album, The Nashville Sound, you recorded Reunions in Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio A. What makes that a special space? The size of it, the ability of everybody in the band to be able to see each other and hear each other and be able to play at the same time. There aren’t many studios left like that. There are huge successful albums being made in tiny rooms but it was very rewarding for us to feel like we were in a big, official studio. When you’re in there recording you think “I better do something worth doing because this is a big room and this is where all these great folks recorded all of these great songs. This is the big time.”
Speaking of the sound, your vocals have never been better than on this record. Why? We’ve used essentially the same mic for the past four albums but somehow the way Dave recorded my vocals this time sounded accurate to me. Hearing what I wanted to from where my voice sat in the mix—hearing that probably motivated me to sing differently, to try a little bit harder than I have in the past. We kept quite a few live vocal takes. We wanted to keep that emotion as much as we could. And I quit smoking, so that had a lot to do with it, too.
And the band is just absolutely on fire on Reunions. We’ve been together a long time and I feel a leap in the ability of the band to be able to play together as a group but still swing, to find creative ways to play these songs. The band found new things to do that kept the songs from sounding like old hat to me.
This is a much less overtly political album than your last one but a couple times you do make reference to the world burning. I feel there should be context, and it would be impossible to put the listener in any kind of context without discussing that there is a great unease for people in this country and pretty much all over the world. It’s probably more personal than political on this album. I didn’t want to avoid anything if something was weighing on me. I think painting a picture that is tense and anxious and heavy on a personal level can work betTer. It’s hard to make a call to action poetic; it’s almost impossible to write a beautiful song that also motivates people to do something. You have to be subtle, and very personal, and open with private feelings that tell people, “Here’s my experience.” Rather than say “Act,” the next step is to get people to empathize.
You are very much an album artist, and that seems especially clear on Reunions because even though each song stands solidly on its own, they all work together so beautifully. There is a lot that is lost if we just listen to a single rather than an entire album. It’s just not going to affect you in the same way. When I’m writing a record I try to put the elements in that are important to me as someone who listens to an album in full.
There are at least a couple of real anthems on this album. While listening I could so clearly hear these being sung in big arenas. I like the way rock n’ roll includes people. But I don’t want to write meaningless anthems. It’s hard to write a big chorus that says anything, so yeah, I was trying to do that. As I write more and more songs through the years I challenge myself to do things that I know are going to be difficult. I thought, “What can I do to get everybody in the room to sing along but not make any of us sound stupid?” It’s not easy, but I appreciate the challenge.
There’s always a lot of self-examination in your songs. It seems that you work really hard at being conscious, at caring deeply, about paying attention. That’s all that I know to do to improve. I probably work harder at that than anything else. I try to stay in the moment, and stay in the process. And I worry about if I am a good parent, a good spouse, a good member of society, a good artist. I just try to stay aware. I guess that’s a philosophical lodestar for me. In trying so many different things, that’s the only one I noticed that really worked. Paying attention.
There’s so much elegy on this album. Practically every song is full of pining. I think that’s another phase of sobriety and adulthood, another step in the long process of getting and keeping your shit together. It’s very easy to lose control and go off the rails. Even for somebody who has been sober for eight years, it would be very easy to slip back into my old ways and I think what in general I’m looking for more than anything else is that sense of the unexpected in my day to day life. I don’t ever want to write songs to maintain a lifestyle or a level of success, I always want to write them because I need to get something out and because I want to connect with people. That’s always been why I’ve written and sung songs.
CUT BY CUT
What’ve I Done To Help? Sweeping strings, a shimmering acoustic guitar, a prowling guitar line, close harmonies, and a self-interrogating Isbell provide layers of music that simultaneously laments living in a world that is “burning down” but remains hopeful enough to find ways to help others. This album opener that provides a perfect transition from The Nashville Sound to Reunions. “The groove is pretty infectious on this song,” Isbell says, and he is especially proud that one of his heroes, David Crosby, guests on it. “I’ll never forget doing that. I grew up trying to imitate his harmony parts and trying to figure out what he was doing on those early records. To be around a microphone with him and Amanda was pretty special; I felt like I got to be part of an era in music that is long gone.”
Dreamsicle In this widely relatable look at children surviving divorce, Isbell leans on vivid imagery that conjures up not only a sense of loss but also the sensation of childhood. “I was thinking a lot about myself and my wife because we were both very young when our parents split up,” he says. “I was blending our two stories. It’s not exactly a heartbreaking song, it’s just sort of a picture of a kid’s life. I wanted to keep the voice of the child-narrator but also retain a retrospective quality to show it’s something the child survived.”
Only Children This song was the first written for the album and Isbell says it “constructed the room where the album takes place”. The characters in the song are composites of several people but the main one is based on a friend of Isbell’s who passed away a few years ago. “We spent a lot of formative time together, back home in Alabama,” he recalls. “When somebody has the same interests as you in a small town, they can be like an oasis. That connection never leaves you. If you lose them sometimes you wind up addressing their ghost for the rest of your life.”
Overseas Driven by a unforgettable guitar line and percussion that conjures the feeling of a journey, this song is an allegory about couples who are sometimes separated for long periods. Isbell says he has challenged himself to write allegorically after reading that Eric Clapton, one of his musical heroes, felt that was required for anyone who wanted to be a great songwriter. “The narrator in that song is married to an expat who has left for political reasons, but I found a lot of similarities between that and [my and Amanda’s] lives,” Isbell says. “When one’s on tour and one’s home with the kids, you understand why the other is gone but you still wish they were home with you. I grow bored of writing songs about myself, singing about myself, so to create an allegory like that is interesting.”
Running With Our Eyes Closed “I’m really proud of the lyric on this one. I feel like I got really close to perfecting the metaphors in this song,” Isbell says. The musical arrangement and production is as complex as the subject matter on this tune about keeping a relationship going over a long period of time. “A lot of songs are about the spark but not a lot are about relationships that are ten or fifteen years in.”
River In what is sure to be a fan favorite, this abstract prayer’s narrator goes to a river to reveal the secrets he cannot share with the people in his life. “A lot of men are raised to not speak about things that are weighing on them, so we turn to something else,” Isbell explains. “This narrator turns to nature but it doesn’t work for him because nature doesn’t talk back. People tend to cast their sins on bodies of water and sometimes that’s not enough, sometimes you have to tell people what you’ve done.” The song was partly inspired by Peter Matthiessen’s epic novel, Shadow Country, which Isbell counts as a favorite book that continues to influence his work.
Be Afraid In the album’s most boisterous rocker, Isbell reminds his audience that true bravery is only achieved by doing something that frightens you. “I’m trying to encourage people to be themselves as loudly as possible,” Isbell says. “I don’t know if I’m in any position to do that but I think if we’re going to make any progress as a society then people have to be brave enough to say what they feel.”
St. Peter’s Autograph The album’s most haunting track is also the one Isbell calls his favorite lyrically and melodically. “As a husband there’s something in that song that speaks to the dynamic in a relationship between two people in general about jealousy. A lot of men are so jealous their whole lives and they never grow out of it because of their own fears of inadequacy. I see that possessiveness a lot with the men I grew up around.” On this song, we have a man who is the opposite, and a better man for it.
It Gets Easier While Isbell has talked very openly about his own alcoholism in the eight years since he became sober, he has never written or sung so blatantly about it before. The refrain of “It gets easier/but it never gets easy” is one that will instantly resonate with anyone who has wrestled with addiction. “I wanted to write for folks going through that. It’s always right over your shoulder.”
Letting You Go The album closer is perhaps the most traditional song on the album and may also be the most moving, with its tender look at being a father. “It was a challenge to write about something that is so important to me but that’s my wheelhouse,” Isbell says. “I like writing songs about things that could get maudlin, but pulling back before they do. I like going to that line. I like to see how emotional I can get without going too far. I feel like my job as a parent is not so much to protect as to prepare. I think’s easier said than done because our instinct is to protect at all costs but I feel it more important to prepare her for the world. It’s hard to let them go.”