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Jason Isbell doesn’t normally see a lot of value in revisiting his old albums. “On one hand, you’re going to be overly critical of yourself,” the 41-year-old singer-songwriter explained. “On the other hand, you want to avoid being that guy who lives perpetually in his high school football glory.”
Nevertheless, he gamely obliged to reminisce about his previous six records on the eve of his seventh, Reunions, entering the world on Friday. For Isbell, the path from his 2007 solo debut Sirens Of The Ditch — which he started working on when he was still in Drive-By Truckers, and put out shortly after he was kicked out of the band — signifies one of the great personal and artistic evolutions in contemporary rock.
Back in the aughts, he was a hard-drinking malcontent who struggled — against himself more than anything — to realize his potential. Over time, however, he would become one of the most respected songwriters in the game, thoughtfully developing his craft and deepening his pet themes: The never-ending fight to overcome self-doubt and self-sabotage, the fraught dynamics between parents and children, the dark pull of the past, and the basic human need to hope for a better tomorrow.
Listening to Reunions, you can hear Isbell write with as much elegance on these topics as he ever has. Two of the most affecting tracks, “Dreamsicle” and “Letting You Go,” are parental narratives in which the troubled boy in the first song becomes the anxious parent in the second. “It Gets Easier” is a dialogue between a sober man and his drunken former self, and how the battle to not become that guy again is unceasing. “Only Children” is a melancholy remembrance of an old friend who didn’t achieve the shared dreams of the narrator. The brilliant “River” ties a charming traditional gospel melody to a story about a remorseful man who is actually much more of a scoundrel than he lets on.
These songs are excellent additions to an already impressive body of work. Though he didn’t intend to do it, Reunions feels both unique in Isbell’s catalogue — it’s the closest he’s come to making a concept record — and like an extension of his other albums. To trace his journey to Reunions, Isbell reflected on his discography and how he got here.
Sirens Of The Ditch (2007)
I wanted to make a record that was completely mine because I was playing with the Drive-By Truckers at that point. As much as I loved making music with those guys — especially then, before things went sour — I felt like I needed to make a record that was my own. When I was writing a song for the Truckers, in my mind, I was thinking, “I need to stay within the confines of that project,” because it wasn’t my project. It was Patterson [Hood]’s project. So it was kind of weird to write songs that fit with that band. Everything else that I was writing at the time went into the bin for my own album that I was planning to make.
I think one problem that I had in those days was the idea of, if I’m making a record, then I need to do something that warrants being called a producer. If something was done, then I would go back and say, “I don’t feel like this is the work of a producer yet, so I need to produce this some more.” That wound up, in a lot of ways, causing some trouble, because I couldn’t just let something be at that point in my life. And that carried on for the next couple albums. When we went back to do remixes of the self-titled album, Dave Cobb said, “Why are there 15 guitars in this track?” And I was like, “Man, that’s because I was producing, Dave. I was producing.” I didn’t know what the fuck producing meant. I was just doing it.
I’ll tell you that there’s no feeling quite like remixing a record that you produced in your 20s, with Dave Cobb now. That was probably the most terrifying thing I did last year, and I sang harmony with Barry Gibb last year in the studio.
Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit (2009)
I remember being really excited to work with Matt Pence, because we didn’t have a drummer at that point in time, and we got Matt to come in and engineer the album and play drums on it. And that was really fun for me because Matt is one of my favorite musicians and he’s a great engineer, and makes really strange choices that I just thought were really cool. When I hear Blake Mills’ production on the Alabama Shakes record [Sound + Color], it reminds me a lot of the things that Matt was doing in Denton, Texas, at his studio, years before that. There was some really cool rhythmic stuff on that album, that didn’t happen really anywhere else in the catalogue because we were so excited to have Matt in the room with us.
It was a very dark time for me, personally. And I always try to document where my mind is at when I’m making an album. I was in a pretty bad spot then, because I’d been kicked out of the Truckers and you would’ve thought that would’ve been a catalyst for me to turn my life around. But I had to go quite a bit further down for that happen. My personal life was a disaster. I always felt physically and emotionally like shit. You can definitely hear that in the lyrics on that record. Even things that aren’t personal, there’s still sort of this desperation and just general malaise on that album. Thankfully, I didn’t do that on any other album, because nobody wants to hear that.
I had a hard time going back and forgiving that guy enough to metaphorically have a conversation with him. Not to skip ahead, but that had a lot to do with the content of Reunions. In a lot of ways, I was going back and reuniting with that guy because I felt like it was safe to do that for the first time in a long time. If you forgive your past self too quickly, it can cause you to become that person again.
Here We Rest (2011)
I felt like we really had something on that one and I still do. I think that’s a really good record, and I think that’s the first time I felt like I had a voice of my own that was worth listening to.
We sort of embraced the nature of the songs on that record. There are some country moments and some more roots-based moments that I think I was intentionally turning away from before, just to delineate my work from the work I did with the Truckers. When I stopped trying so hard to make those kinds of decisions and just let the songs be, then you get “Codeine,” “Alabama Pines” and some things that I feel like are really strong, and things that I’m still happy to play every night.
I figured something out with “Alabama Pines.” I think I figured out when a song is finished. And that was huge for me, because before that, I had stopped too early and I hadn’t taken the time to edit as much as I needed to and make sure every word was right, every line was right. In “Alabama Pines,” I was feeling the subject matter so much and it was so important to me that I took extra time with it, and I did the work to make sure it was complete. And after that, I saw what I was capable of doing if I worked that hard on a song.
“Dress Blues” was a good song because of the subject matter and because of the story, but I didn’t have to do a whole lot to write that song. I think “Alabama Pines” was the first really great song that I felt like I had written and not just allowed to write itself.
I was going to do that with Ryan Adams. He was going to produce it. And then at the last minute, he pulled a Ryan Adams and backed out, probably because he heard the songs and was threatened by honesty.
Luckily, I had met Dave Cobb and had a pretty good conversation with him. We called him and said, “Can you make this record next week? It’s the only time I have. I got to go back on the road and work.” And Dave said, “Yeah. I’ll push everything that I have and we’ll do it at my house.” So we made that record at Dave’s house.
Things were new to me at that point. I was at that stage where I had just recently sobered up, and then I wrote all those songs right after I got sober. I was in a very fortunate position as a storyteller, because I had developed the ability to write a song, because even when I was drinking and wasting a lot of my time, I was still spending a lot of time working on the craft of songwriting. And I had realized with Here We Rest that I had more to offer.
When it came time to write Southeastern, I didn’t have anything else to do. I was sober and I didn’t have any kids and my day was my own. I had a lot of space to fill and I filled it by just sitting there writing, and working really hard on each individual lyric, and trying to make everything as perfect as I could. So when I went into the studio with that, I went in with a bomb strapped to my chest.
Something More Than Free (2015)
I remember being angry before we went into record that record. Just angry at the state of the world in general. I remember being really elated on the other hand about the success that we had found in our work. I remember thinking, “There’s a chasm here between my own personal experience and life and the lives of the people I grew up around back home.” And that was making me angry because I was confused by it. I wrote about that some on that record and more on The Nashville Sound,
It was definitely a time in my life when I had found success that I had never found before. When we went out on the Southeastern tour, people were standing outside in parking lots to the venues, trying to see the show through the window because they couldn’t get in. And then it came time to write another record and I was still the same guy who had grown up in a tiny town in Alabama full of people who felt increasingly desperate as the days went by. So it was the first period in my life where I started trying to come to terms with that separation. And I’m still coming to terms with it now. It’s still something that I wrote about on the new record. It concerns me a lot. How do I be grateful for the things that I have and enjoy the life that I’ve been lucky enough and worked hard enough to get, and still keep in mind the fact that, most of the people who I grew up with are having a really difficult time?
None of it is political. People who call it political are people who are trying to make it smaller. People who feel threatened by my stories, they call it political music because they want to put that in a box. It makes it easier to dismiss. None of this shit is political. If I was writing political songs, I’d be writing about Robert’s fucking Rules Of Order. Politics is just the exchange of power. It’s who gets to speak. And it’s not interesting and it’s not the kind of thing that makes for a broad exploration of the human experience.
These are stories. And you can’t argue with stories. You can’t argue with me saying, “This happened to me and I did this,” but you can argue with politics.
The Nashville Sound (2017)
Seems like 1,000 years ago. It feels like I’ve been in my house for 900 years, like fucking Yoda.
That was a really enjoyable experience, making that record. I had a really good time in the studio. Everybody was having fun. That one was more of a live-recording type of record than Reunions, so it was like, every day, I would go in, I would play the song for the band and for Dave. And then we would all go sit down. We would play it half a dozen times until we got it right. And the songs looked good and everybody was in a good mood and we had a blast.
There was some pressure that was starting to build that I was ignoring, because we had such success with Southeastern and Something More Than Free. I was certainly ignoring that pressure, but it was still building. It came to a head when we were recording Reunions. My wife [Amanda Shires] and I had a really difficult time of it for a couple of weeks, but everything’s all right now. But I’ve discovered that I have a tendency to pretend that I’m not feeling pressured if I don’t feel like the reasons for the pressure are justifiable. Going into to make a record after you’ve had two or three successful records in a row, to me, doesn’t feel like a good reason to be upset. It’s like, if you can’t ignore that, then you’re just kind of being an asshole.
But the fact is, I was still feeling that pressure. Though I don’t think I was feeling it so severely when we did The Nashville Sound.
When we were making Reunions, I was really tense. Just really fucking tense the whole time.
Truth be told, I was worried about whether or not the songs were good enough and whether or not the album was going to be good enough. Sadly, for me, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the process of making that record as much as I could have, which, in hindsight, I regret because I think it’s a great record.
What I saw as focus probably came across as me being an asshole, dismissive, like, “Stop! Get away from me with that!” I started being the typical boss at a company or some shit. I think, by the time we did Reunions. That made the atmosphere definitely difficult for my wife. I don’t know how the rest of the band really felt about it, but for her, that was tough because I wasn’t doing a good job of combining the personal and the business end of things. But I think I worked my way through that. I feel better about it now.
You remember Tears For Fears? Everything that they wrote was about the trauma that you suffer as a child, and about how the only really successful method that has been found for overcoming it was primal scream therapy, in their opinion. Now that I have a small child, I spend a lot of time thinking about what went right and what went wrong when I was a kid, and why I felt the way that I did. When I was a kid, I didn’t have any other kids around me. Nobody in my family was my age. Everybody was either way older than me or way younger than me. And I have figured out, through a lot of therapy, that I took things way more seriously than I should have, because when the folks around me were in a state of crisis, most of them were in a state of crisis because of a really serious problem. Like maybe my uncle was upset because he was getting a divorce, not because he hadn’t studied enough for his fifth-grade math test. So to me, because we parrot the people around us, I sort of assumed that kind of pressure for everything that I was doing, when I was just really doing normal shit for a 7-year-old kid. But to me, it felt like the stakes were life and death.
I think “Dreamsicle” is rooted in this beautiful image of being a child and enjoying that experience, but at the same time, there are there really heavy things going on around that child. Probably at the root of the song is, “This doesn’t have anything to do with you, kid. This is not your fault, this is not your doing, and this is not your business, and the best thing you can do is just continue to be a kid.”
The changes that I went through in the last couple of years were very significant, psychologically, to me. A lot of things wound up coming back up. I think maybe my unconscious mind was writing a concept album, but the rest of me didn’t realize that was happening.
The first song that I wrote for this album was “Only Children.” I was on vacation with my wife and a couple of really close friends, and we were in Greece, on the island there, where Leonard Cohen lived, in Hydra. All that sounds ridiculous. It is in fact what was really happening. My best friend, Will, is a writer/editor for a magazine, and his wife is a writer and a naturalist and herbalist. Obviously, my wife is a writer. So we were all sitting around sharing our work with each other and talking about our work and reading things out loud and singing things out loud. It occurred to me that I haven’t done that much over the last couple of decades, since I became a professional creative person. The part where you sit around with your friends and share what you’ve been working on. And I missed that a lot.
That set the tone for the rest of the album. I started thinking about things that I missed and people that I missed. And then at the same time, I was coming to terms with the person I used to be, and I felt safe to reopen the conversation with that person. “It Gets Easier” is the first time I’ve gone back and addressed that guy. On the primary level, I was speaking to people who have a similar experience to mine and who have been sober for quite a while. And on another level, I was talking to myself then and saying, “This is possible. Don’t let your guard down, but this is possible and it’s worth it.”
We have a bunch of weird songwriter sayings around the house, but one of them is, “Don’t you dare tell people that song is not about what they think it’s about, because that’s not fair. Don’t take that away from them.” And it’s true. It’s not mine once it’s written and recorded and put out there in the world. It doesn’t really belong to me anymore. And for the same reason that I don’t go back and revisit those albums a lot, I’m not going to go online and tell people they’re wrong when they’re feeling emotions to a piece of work that I created. I’m just grateful that it has a relevance to people.
Reunions is out on May 15 via Southeastern Records. Get it here.