Jason Isbell / Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

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Reunions Review

by Mark Deming

Some albums are made to reflect the times in which they were made, and others somehow mesh with the zeitgeist without ever planning on it. America was a nation knee-deep in uncertainty when Jason Isbell wrote and recorded 2020's Reunions, but he had no idea that the album would be released as a pandemic was sweeping the world. Thanks to COVID-19, the record emerged just as an America in quarantine was united in anxiety and frustration while at the same time struggling with a growing divide about what to do and who to believe. Reunions doesn't deal with any of these issues (and really couldn't have, given the timeline of its creation), but from the edgy fear that fuels the opening cut, "What've I Done to Help," this album is steeped in tales of folks whose lives feel unrooted, not knowing just where fate is taking them and wondering which turn they should take. The kid whose world is being turned upside down by divorce in "Dreamsicle," the friend whose choices had grim consequences in "Only Children," the broken trust of "Running With Our Eyes Closed," and "Overseas," in which the line "My love won't change a thing" feels less like assurance than resignation, all feel all too relevant at a time when just going to the grocery requires determination and a leap of faith. Even the album's most anthemic numbers seem remarkably prescient -- "Be Afraid" ("but do it anyway") at once calls for courage and respects its sometimes short supply, and "It Gets Easier" ("but it never gets easy") may be about addiction and recovery, but it can just as easily reflect the obstacles of living in a world that has very suddenly changed with no guarantee we'll ever return to what we knew.

The fact these songs seem so telling in a strange and difficult time has a bit to do with coincidence, but more important is the excellence of Isbell's songwriting. He makes his characters and their stories feel thoroughly honest and unguarded, and if he's not always optimistic, his artful realism is never less than heartfelt and powerfully human. His vocals, passionate and nuanced without ever feeling less than authentic, are the perfect vehicle for his lyrics. While Isbell and producer Dave Cobb have opted to give this a slightly more polished sound than their previous albums together, with a bit more trickery in the recording and mixing process, this still feels like a band playing together rather than something pieced together from disparate elements. The 400 Unit (Sadler Vaden on guitars, Derry deBorja on keyboards, Amanda Shires on fiddle, Jimbo Hart on bass, and Chad Gamble on drums) are nothing less than superb. The closing track on Reunions, "Letting You Go," is a simple yet powerful meditation on the joys and challenges of being a parent, and it's a perfect way to end this set of songs, a contemplation of a moment when everything seems up in the air but love finds a way to keep people focused, grounded, and safe. Much of Reunions mirrors a troubled present, but "Letting You Go" finds room for hope and humanity, and it reinforces the themes of what may be Jason Isbell's strongest solo effort to date.

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