Jason Isbell’s ‘Reunions’ review – a lively, powerful album for a world on fire
Reunions is Jason Isbell's seventh solo album and it comes nearly 20 years after he debuted as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. Plenty of artists at this point would be happy just to coast on past accomplishments, but Jason himself admits he was feeling the pressure to continue the creative hot streak that began when 2013's Southeastern turned him from "former Drive-By Truckers member" into one of the most widely celebrated singer/songwriter/guitarists of an era where singer/songwriter/guitarists are considered a dying breed.
Southeastern was his first release for his own new label (also called Southeastern), first in a now-four-albums-long series of collaborations with producer Dave Cobb, and -- following two full-band albums with his band the 400 Unit (which includes Isbell's wife Amanda Shires, who is also an excellent solo artist) -- Southeastern was an intimate, more solo-oriented album that detailed Isbell's path to sobriety. The likeminded Something More Than Free came in 2015, and then Isbell put the 400 Unit's name back on the album cover for 2017's harder rocking The Nashville Sound, a record which combined the personal introspection of its two predecessors with a fired-up political side that reacted to the sad state of the Trump era. The 400 Unit's next release was a live album that helped show the world that The 400 Unit are as powerful and unpredictable on stage as Jason Isbell is with a pen. They've got the seasoned sound of vets but the hunger of rookies, and a leader who knows great songwriting is as important as great musicianship and a great live show. All of these things that Jason Isbell has spent the last seven years working towards can be heard on Reunions, an album that -- even with Isbell saying it was born out of some "really hard" studio sessions -- makes it sound so damn easy.
The Nashville Sound may have been Jason Isbell's return to making 400 Unit albums (though the members did play on Southeastern and Something More Than Free), but Reunions captures the energy of the band's live show in ways its predecessor didn't. Reunions is populated with fiery, show-stealing guitar solos, explosive hard rock choruses, and moments where all the musicians sound like they're feeding off of each other at once in a way that nears jam band territory. There's still as much Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen on Reunions as there was on the last album, but there's also stuff like the reggae-rock undercurrent of album opener "What've I Done To Help" that recalls late '70s Grateful Dead. (There's also literally some David Crosby, who sings on "What've I Done to Help" and "Only Children.") And even being a 400 Unit album, it has some bare-bones singer/songwriter songs that rival Southeastern and Something More Than Free too ("Dreamsicle," "Only Children," "St. Peter's Autograph"). Reunions is full of stuff that would sound wildly out of fashion in a lesser songwriter's hands, but Jason Isbell makes this music sound entirely relevant. He takes notes from the classic rock canon, but not in a way that comes off as reactionary to modern music. He makes familiar sounds feel fresh, he fills a void you might not've realized was there, and his subject matter resonates so much right now that these songs never feel like they're from any time but the present.
Isbell revisits some topics he's written about before on Reunions, but he always manages to add new perspective. Like The Nashville Sound, Reunions can be political. The refrain of "What've I Done to Help" repeats its titular line over and over, and you always get the sense that Isbell is looking at the mess of a world that surrounds him and either feeling guilty, helpless, or both -- something a lot of us can probably relate to right now. On "Be Afraid," Isbell fires back at anyone asking him to keep politics out of music ("We won't shut up and sing"). But Reunions is highly personal too. He sings about the struggles of his own childhood on one song ("Dreamsicle") and about being a father on another ("Letting You Go"). He sings about being apart from Amanda Shires when they're on separate tours on "Overseas," and he gives an update on his sobriety on "It Gets Easier" ("it gets easier, but it never gets easy"). On "Only Children," he sings to a dead friend, but death alone isn't what makes the song so heartbreaking; it's when he brings up the highly specific moments that hit so much harder once a person's gone ("Will you read me what you wrote? The one I said you stole from Dylan").
Writing with such specificity was intentional -- "I think that I made less of an effort to be universal with these stories," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I’ve become more comfortable with the fact that, if you’re honest and you spend enough time with each song, and write it the best you possibly can, you don’t have to worry about trying to apply that to other peoples’ experiences." It's true; as personal and specific as these songs are, they manage to feel universal, especially with everything going on right now. Isbell couldn't have known he'd be releasing his album in the midst of a pandemic, but lines like "We're all struggling with a world on fire" and "It gets easier, but it never gets easy" feel like rallying cries for this very moment. That's the mark of a great songwriter -- someone who can turn their personal stories into something universal and timeless.
Reunions got an early physical release via independent record stores last week, and it's out now everywhere. Stream it below.
UPDATE: Jason and Amanda Shires celebrated the album with a truly excellent livestreamed album release show from the empty Brooklyn Bowl Nashville. Watch here.