The Raw Honesty of Reunions
Jason Isbell Releases the Strongest Work of His Career
Friday saw the release of the seventh solo album by singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, an artist who doesn’t shy away from honesty or his own personal ethos with the work of his craft. The album is the reflection of an artist refining his output to a level of earnest truth-telling and profundity found in introspection the likes of which most musical acts will only ever dream of achieving.
Listening to REUNIONS, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by its lack of pretense. Every song delivers these huge punches to the gut that leave you gasping for air. It’s the kind of record that makes you wonder out loud, “wow, how’d they come up with that?” From the soul-searching opener “What’ve I Done to Help?” to the first single “Be Afraid” and it’s heart-wrenching closer “Letting You Go,” this album is a masterclass of storytelling and melody, of guitar tone and song structure. It’s an album that not only resets the bar for what country music can achieve, it’s a career defining masterpiece from a songwriter who already gave us one career-defining masterpiece with his album Southeastern. I’d go so far as to claim this album is better than Southeastern, and that album has been spun countless times at my house, being one that I refer back to often in my musical journey. I already know this one will come to do the same for this current period of my life. It’s just that powerful.
Following is a track by track reaction:
- What’ve I Done to Help?
This song is a great opening track. Slightly upbeat, driving rhythm with a meditative hook that asks the listener to take a look at themselves as well as their surroundings. It asks us to take responsibility for our own lives, while also being willing to admit there is always more that can be done to serve others, to find a true level of altruism.
Best lyric: I broke my word, I lied on a Bible just to feel a little free
She didn’t deserve it, nobody ever deserves it,
But I cut anchor and drifted out to sea
Easily one of the finest songs I’ve ever heard, and one of the best on this album, this song really sets the tone for the whole record. It’s a bittersweet remembrance of growing up in the South with a broken family. This one really struck a chord in me, hit home in a lot of personal ways. Just a knockout of a song, powerful image after powerful image, walking the listener through a story that feels like it could be torn from many American lives.
Best lyric: Poison oak to poison ivy
Dirty jokes that blew right by me
Momma curling up beside me
Crying to herself
3. Only Children
A somber and melancholy ballad that feels drenched in nostalgia and maybe some personal regrets. This is the type of sad song Isbell writes so well, it packs a hefty weight with every listen. That Martin acoustic sings in this one, carries the emotion of the track with its bronzey twang accompanied by Isbell’s heartfelt vocal.
Best lyric: “Heaven’s wasted on the dead”
That’s what your mama said
When the hearse was idling in the parking lot
She said you thought the world of me
And you were glad to see
They finally let me be an astronaut
Another standout track, this one bringing the power of a lead guitar tone that would likely have David Gilmour pissing his pants. Between this song and “Dreamsicle” if you aren’t hooked by now, you may want to check your pulse. This is a complex song, another one about the dynamics of a struggling family. If you read too far into it, knowing Isbell’s habit of openly sharing his own stories, you might think this song to be about his own feelings of living with a touring musician, and being critical of how this affects parenting. But it seems more likely this song is an honest look at how common it is for single mothers or fathers to feel lost while their loved ones are deployed to foreign lands. The clue to this is the final verse.
Best lyric: You know what revolution means
And you know it’s not an option now
5. Running with Our Eyes Closed
The halfway point of the album is another mid-tempo rocker, tinged with a bit of eighties-era keyboard that feels like it was lifted from the Stranger Things, and it just works. With its verses seeming to channel a bit of Tom Petty, to its lavish chorus breaks that come from the bygone era of overly layered Bryan Adams hooks, the weighty truths can sneak by you here if you’re not paying attention.
Best lyric: Well you are who you are when you’re angry
When you’re scared or you’re sad or you’re bored
When a stranger has slipped you a room key
To a hotel room you couldn’t afford
Another hard right hook of a song here, telling the story of someone willing to do whatever it takes to survive. This one has flourishes that call back to another of his more powerful tunes from Southeastern, “Yvette,” which also tells the story of someone who isn’t afraid to do a necessary evil to save someone else. This song’s verses remind me of the “The River” by Garth Brooks, but thankfully it isn’t nearly as self-aware, and its chorus goes in an unexpected direction. A song of powerful imagery that tells a haunting narrative you will not soon forget.
Best lyric: And to reach her destination
Is to simply cease to be
And running until you’re nothing
Sounds a lot like being free
7. Be Afraid
The first single from the album contains some of its best lines. It’s a different kind of track for Isbell, seeming to come from more of his rock influences, maybe a bit of a Smiths vibe in there, with an interesting arrangement favoring the bass hook. The chorus comes with a loud clang of reverb and vibrato soaked guitars, and the battlecry lyric Isbell seems to be critiquing either himself or another musician for being too afraid to sing, saying “Be afraid, very afraid, but do it anyway.” Another highlight and one of my favorites, but this one took some time with to capture all of its nuances.
Best lyric: Tell the truth enough you’ll find it rhymes with everything
8. St. Peter’s Autograph
A sad acoustic ballad, more sparse in its production, this one is mainly just Isbell and his guitar channeling his inner John Prine. This is yet another soul-baring tune of misleading simplicity concealing its hidden depth. Pay attention to this one and it may move you to tears.
Best lyric: Sometimes it’s nothing but the way you’re wired
And that’s not your fault
We’re all struggling with the world on fire
And the fear we’re taught
9. It Gets Easier
This song is an anthem to sobriety. Isbell owes a lot of his success to reclaiming his life from the wreckage of alcoholism, and he isn’t afraid to give credit where credit is due. In this track, he belts with an unbridled earnestness “it gets easier, but it never gets easy,” a chorus for people to cling to when they start feeling desperate and lonely. At this point, you must realize you’re listening to an artist at the absolute top of their game.
Best lyric: Last night I did myself a favor
I called in sick and went downtown
Drove past the local bar
A cop got behind the car
I wish he would pull me over now
10. Letting You Go
Isbell and his acoustic again starts this one off, on this most country-inspired, and classically gospel inspired track, singing a song about fatherhood. This is about as true and good as music can get. Not much else to say, except that the love poured into this song could move mountains.
Best lyric: Three in the morning I lay my hand over your heart just to know you were safe in your sleep
When you started walking I fight back the urge to stay right there beside you and keep you on your feet
Song after song, REUNIONS is an album you can easily put on repeat and never get tired of. My hat is off to Jason Isbell, for somehow miraculously being able to remain true to himself and keep finding those hidden reserves of creative ingenuity that have served him so well. Let’s hope he keeps finding it, and keeps allowing his music to speak wholeheartedly for itself.