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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions Music Album Reviews

The alt-country singer-songwriter’s new album moves steadily and carefully, lingering on the conflicted emotions of his finely-etched tales and the band’s textured, elegant understatement.

The “rigorous honesty” required in recovery programs is a tenet that Jason Isbell has taken to heart. Candor has been at the core of Isbell ever since 2013’s Southeastern, the record he released in the wake of his newfound sobriety and his marriage to Amanda Shires. Seven years and three albums later, sobriety remains central to Isbell’s public image, as does his union with Shires, with whom he had a daughter. Isbell doesn’t shy away from probing personal questions when he sits for an interview, a habit that may be a fruitful part of his recovery but nevertheless can give his songs the appearance of being straight reflections of his personal life.
Reunions, the fourth album he’s written and recorded since getting sober, is indeed filled with images that seem to mirror the personal life he’s talked about in public. Romances are stable but not without their struggles; characters will themselves to accept their fears; whenever a child appears it’s a girl, not a boy. Leading up to the album’s release, Isbell upped the ante by admitting to the New York Times that its creation was fraught with tension, stemming from the pressure to deliver another strong album after making, in his own words to GQ, “three good records in a row.” Buckling under his self-imposed standards, he closed himself off from Shires, who in addition to her solo career and her role in Americana supergroup the Highwomen plays fiddle in the 400 Unit, the backing band Isbell founded in 2009 who have shared album credits with the singer-songwriter since 2017’s The Nashville Sound.
None of this agitation can be heard on Reunions. The album moves steadily and carefully, lingering on the conflicted emotions conjured by Isbell’s finely-etched tales and the band’s elegant understatement. Working once again with Dave Cobb, who has produced every one of his records since Southeastern, Isbell made a conscious effort to push the 400 Unit outside their comfort zone. What they wound up with is not with an album that blares—nothing rocks with the abandon of “Cumberland Gap,” a galvanizing number from The Nashville Sound—but one that’s so full of texture it nearly feels painted on a canvas. Waves of cool synthesizers pulsate underneath “Only Children,” whose mournful verses are accented by economical single-string runs. “Dreamsicle” unfurls with unhurried attention to detail, its bittersweet childhood memories gaining poignance as each chorus seems to be delivered with a sadder sigh. The 400 Unit can still roar—Isbell seems to steel his spine on “Be Afraid” because his group sounds tougher than their singer—but Reunions gains strength through the band’s collective interplay.

That communal spirit is felt throughout, adding a counterpoint to a collection of songs where Isbell ponders the kinds of minor, numbing regrets that can metastasize into self-inflicted wounds. “What Have I Done to Help” provides a keynote of sorts, its narrator gaining no comfort in his successes because he can’t shake the notion they’re selfish achievements. Nearly every successive song proves this doubt untrue, as Isbell focuses on humans striving to connect and largely succeed in spite of their fumbling. Not every one of Isbell’s characters gives into their better nature. The narrator of “River” is tormented by his misdeeds, but the song plays like a guidepost for the rest of the record, illustrating how Isbell favors forgiveness over darkness. The closing triptych of “St. Peter’s Autograph,” “It Gets Easier,” and “Letting You Go” emphasizes his inclination toward empathy, finding grace in love for others.

“St. Peter’s Autograph” is the simplest, sparest song on Reunions, an elegy for the departed friend of a loved one; it’s about giving another person the space to grieve on their own terms. Where “St. Peter’s Autograph” is haunted by loss, “Letting You Go” tells the tale of a father finally able to “see through the great fog of loneliness” by placing his daughter’s needs over his own. Between these two songs is “It Gets Easier,” which is where the heart of Reunions lies. It could be seen as an act of fellowship for fellow recovering alcoholics or Isbell could be singing directly to himself: “Last night I dreamed I’d been drinking,” he sings, “I had one glass of wine/I woke up feeling fine/That’s how I knew it was a dream.” It’s a lyric that anticipates a confession Isbell made to the New York Times, where he cops to drinking Listerine as if it was a shot of whiskey. He told Shires he held himself accountable in public, actions that jibe the song’s bemused, self-aware inventory of longings for substances that are now forbidden but never forgotten.

Reunions is not pure autobiography or a series of confessions to be admired for their bloodletting. Attempts to parse the details in any particular song will uncover how Isbell departs from his own history. Like all great songwriters, he uses his life as a springboard toward a hyper-reality that reveals truths a mere diary entry could not. His candor can sometimes obscure this essential fact, but his forthrightness underscores the emotional clarity of Reunions: The music wouldn’t resonate so richly if he wasn’t able to access his truth as vividly in song as he does in the press.

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