Although Jason Isbell's rather sudden split from the Drive-By Truckers, after six years of guitar/songwriting employment, was unexpected by most, his debut solo disc had already been four years in the making. Perhaps that explains the appearance of three members of his old band (bassist Shonna Tucker, drummer Brad Morgan, and DBT founder/frontman Patterson Hood, who also co-produced this disc), who assist on nearly every track. Musically Isbell finds a more soulful, generally less guitar-centric groove in this Southern singer/songwriter rock. Even though it was pieced together from different sessions, this is a remarkably coherent effort. Songs such as the melancholy "Dress Blues" and the harder-rocking "Shotgun Wedding" dissect the lives of working folks from small towns that Isbell likely knows well, and his lyrics sympathetically examine the limited futures of many of the protagonists. He delivers these stories with honest, unpretentious, and dusky vocals that, with a modified Don Henley rasp, subtly frame his skillfully constructed words. Even with the substantial input from the various Truckers, few of that band's fans would expect to find the upbeat, near-folk pop with banjo accompaniment of "The Magician," a tune that uses the titular character as a metaphor for the life of a touring musician, on a DBT disc. Nor would the understated blues of "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" or the lovely acoustic ruminations of "In a Razor Town," a song that wouldn't be out of place on an old Jackson Browne album, logically slot into the Truckers' catalog. Every track is beautifully constructed, but none are fussy or overthought out, something not to be taken for granted concerning songs that took four years to finally appear. At times the effect seems almost too clean, as if Isbell is trying to distance himself from the grungier Truckers style. But this is a remarkably mature and impressive debut from an artist who seems like he's just getting started and his best stuff lies ahead of him.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz