Music Reviews

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Reunions

(Southestern Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

On Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s last tour, he premiered Overseas, one of the most heartbreaking songs he’s ever written—one that opened with a wailing guitar lead, humming keys, and a tone that felt more concerning than anything he’s put out in years. There’s a lot to be distressed about these days, but this new song made that confusion sound personal. It seemed as if something was going on at home with our newest capital-G Great American Songwriter. That worrying song has a remarkable hook that repeats “My love won’t change,” like the narrator is trying to convince his partner and himself of this half-truth. Featured on Reunions, his seventh album, it's a first-rate release of anxiety, fear, and hope.

Isbell recently discussed those worries that built Reunions in a fascinating New York Times article, but it didn’t affect the album’s quality. While the crazy highs of 2015’s Something More Than Free and 2017’s The Nashville Sound aren’t necessarily here, each song is firmly excellent in a way that most songwriters and bands can’t dream of. At 41 minutes, this album covers every type of song Isbell does best; from tight rockers to disappointed country tunes, Reunions hits the spot. Opener What’ve I Done to Help tries to stay positive in a period of crisis, but trucks ahead with apprehensive energy. By the time the wall of harmonies and textured backing from the 400 Unit comes in, there’s a swelling sadness that makes it unforgettable. The aforementioned Overseas is probably the album's best rock straightforward tune, but the hopeful It Gets Easier gives it solid competition. Isbell’s relationship with alcohol is well documented, taking an approach that could be saccharine if anyone less than a master was writing it. On the chorus, Isbell tries to convince a drinker that “It gets easier but it never gets easy” over heartland rock that would make Tom Petty proud. 

Still, it wouldn’t be Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit without some wistful country songs, and Reunions delivers in spades. The nostalgic and slightly bittersweet Dreamsicle is one of the album’s strongest moments, supplemented by touches of pedal steel on the chorus, Amanda Shires’ great harmonies, and rustling drums, but the main draw here is a striking tale of having to drift through childhood. The song is supported by some of Isbell’s best imagery ever, led by specific youthful details meandering their way through the story. The same can be said for Only Children, which is just as good, with a sharper instrumental approach and a happy chorus that gives away to distinct melancholy. Isbell manages to pull off a minor miracle on album closer Letting You Go, taking a cliched topic and turning it into a moving song. With cozy electric guitars and a kindly vocal delivery, he directly addresses his daughter and what it’s like to watch her grow without letting the content ever seem standard. It’s somehow one of the most heartfelt songs he’s ever written.

Reunions feels most understandable through the lead single, Be Afraid, which has the giant rallying call of “Be afraid, but do it anyway.” Jason Isbell is a man of many demons, and each of those are noticeable throughout the album, but he tries to engage with them in a healthy way. He talks about uncertainty in his marriage on the haunted Running With Our Eyes Closed, and finds it difficult opening up on the comforting River, but it never feels like it comes from a helpless perspective. He talks about moving forward and working on these issues, leading to a beautiful thing that’s communicated on Reunions. He’s afraid, but he’ll do it anyway.