Jason Isbell has been telling stories for years. On 2013’s Southeastern, the stories he told centered around redemption and rebuilding. The record marked his first album since recovering from alcoholism, facing the world sober with his back towards a life filled with ghosts and closets full of skeletons. Storytelling is in his DNA, and all of Isbell’s records since Southeastern have helped stake his claim as one of the premier songwriters not only in his genre, but in the world.
He’s spun tales centered around traveling gangsters (“Live Oak”), lonely souls (“Travelling Alone”), enduring love (“If We Were Vampires”), and the hollowing out of working America (“Cumberland Gap”), to name a few. Isbell’s also been more than willing to write songs exploring addiction and reflecting upon recovery; go no further than “Super 8 Motel” or “Molotov” to hear testaments to just how close Isbell came to burning himself into the ground.
Jason Isbell’s Reunions is the most layered album he’s put out to date. He and longtime friend and producer Dave Cobb set out to build an album with a more complex sound than his previous efforts, and they certainly succeeded in their endeavor. The record doesn’t represent his debut into the world of musical activism nor his first step into vulnerability. Reunions shows that he’s finally willing to turn around and face his ghosts.
“What’ve I Done to Help”, the opening ballad of the album, stirs Isbell’s audience to its feet right off the bat – not by questioning them or demanding they rise up. Instead, he is questioning himself, asking what he’s done to help, over an almost reckless electric guitar. It’s certainly not the best, musically, nor most vulnerable, song of the album, but it’s the perfect start to an album full of questions and with very few answers.
That’s one of the virtues of Reunions – the album trusts its listeners, a loyal fan base that Isbell has built on a brand of mixing deftly crafted lyrics with both southern rock and classic country influences, to interpret each of its stories and bring the questions to the table themselves. It trusts its audience to find their ghosts themselves, and those ghosts are plentiful in this album.
“Only Children” tells the story of an old, lost friend, travelling through the past and to the days of reckless young adulthood when all our dreams were equal, and nobody had found more success than anybody else yet. It opens with his most vivid and direct reference to ghosts.
“Walking around at night/curbing my appetite/any kid in cutoffs could be you,” Isbell sings, guiding us through a remembrance of youth and the guilt of seeing the ghost of someone who didn’t make it.
“Do the dead believe in ghosts/or are you lost in some old building,” Isbell asks, either hoping or despairing. I’m not sure which.
“Dreamsicle” is a bittersweet remembrance of early childhood. The song puts a young child next to his sad, almost fading mother, empty a father, and wishing he’d just return, wishing for a family felt whole again. Isbell possesses the rare trait of putting a listener in a story, painting a world around them in a vivid array of flavors and visuals. In “Dreamsicle,” I can taste the summer treat bearing the name of the single.
The taste is bittersweet. Together, “Only Children” and “Dreamsicle” face down the barrel of youth as only a memory; they carry the bittersweet taste of nostalgia when not everybody from your youth can make it. In these songs, Jason Isbell explores those moments when you encounter both the beautiful and dark moments of growing up, meshing together into a wonderfully tragic obituary of earlier days.
Isbell never lets himself off the hook or puff his chest out at the artists who may have lost their way or have been unwilling to stand for something in their rise to success. Isbell acknowledges that speaking honestly and fighting for the hard things like youth, for the battles that carry incredible accountability and criticism, is fucking terrifying. It’s not easy, but we have to do it anyway. Even when its hard, we have to stand for something, even when it’s scary, and we have to face our ghosts.
That reality comes to light on the “Be Afraid”, the record’s last gasp of rock and roll. Isbell points his finger at the music industry, demanding that artists remember who they once were and use the stage not as a vanity project but as a rare opportunity to fight for the things that matter. Once again, Isbell shows a rare willingness to be incredibly honest with his listeners; the chorus roars with “Be afraid/Be very afraid/But do it anyway.”
Isbell’s always been willing to shine a light on some of the more uncomfortable topics in his life and in American history writ large. In his public life he’s been more than willing to be vulnerable about his political beliefs as well. From writing music like the blunt “White Man’s World”, to stumping for Alabama’s Democratic Senator Doug Jones, Isbell’s been an outspoken critic of conservatism within the country music genre. Isbell’s willingness to be loud with his beliefs doesn’t come in the absence of fear; it seems to come in the face of it, if “Be Afraid” shines any light on Isbell himself. As the old cliche goes, being brave doesn’t require vanquishing fear, but, rather, it requires acting in the face of it.
All of these threads come together on “It Gets Easier.” The song captures the entire ethos of the album; fighting with ghosts, dealing in honesty, telling stories that make us question ourselves and gives little answers to soothe our fears – they all come to a head on this second to last song. Here, Isbell faces up to his audience with the most vulnerability possible. “It gets easier but it never gets easy/I can say it’s all worth it/But you won’t believe me.”
The song brings together the work of the entire album, tying the personal vulnerability and journeys into the past of “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children” with the honest evaluation of how terrifying it can be to do that work we hear on “Be Afraid.” Isbell knows it won’t be easy for folks to overcome addiction; he knows he can’t promise how much greener the grass is on the other side. The willingness to admit that makes his outreach more genuine, and, in revealing that vulnerability, he crafts a song that is foundational to the album.
Playing live at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville on release night, Isbell spoke before performing “It Gets Easier” alongside Shires. He acknowledged how difficult it is to overcome alcoholism, especially right now, in a world so dark, and with so many shut off from the folks they often lean upon for support. In lending a hand to those following behind him, inspired by his honest fight with alcohol addiction, Isbell holds true to his honesty. It’s hard to believe, looking from the other side, that an uphill battle is worth the climb. And that’s okay – but we have to try.
Reunions, Jason Isbell’s storytelling and candor separates him from the pack. When I listen to this album, I’m reminded that, even in the darkest moments, in the lowest, saddest moments of life, there can still be a greener pasture. It paints the picture of a past not looked upon with rose colored glasses but reflected upon honestly, in the hopes of using that past to do more good, to help more folks. It convinces me that things might not be alright, that our past mistakes will never simply disappear, but that we can always reconcile with them.
If you’re looking for the best, the most vivid collection of short stories you’ll find this year, you won’t find them on the New York Times bestsellers list. They’re on this album. Reunions shows that befriending our ghosts, walking through the past to meet them hand-in-hand with an open heart and a willingness to forgive, beats the alternative of trying to wrestle them into the ground or obliterate them from our memories. Listening to the stories on Reunions, Isbell offers a guide to the first steps into our pasts. Maybe that’s the only way we move towards a better future.