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By Bryan Ledgard from Yorkshire, UK - Jason Isbell, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37569146

I’m still getting a handle on Weathervanes, the latest Jason Isbell album. It almost always takes a while to integrate a new album into your feelings about an established artist’s catalogue, requiring re-listens of not only the new album but also of much of the older work. Having listened to Weathervanes quite a bit my feeling is that it’s an extremely strong record, probably my second favorite among Isbell’s work thus far.

Isbell very rapidly made the shift from Well Regarded Musician to Prominent Man in American Life just at the point it looked as if he wasn’t going to make that shift at all. That Isbell was both ambitious and absurdly talented was obvious from Decoration Day, the first album the Drive By Truckers recorded after he joined. You simply do not join an established band like the DBTs and then lend, almost on the first day, your first ever song to the next album title unless you’re both confident and ambitious. I suspect that Isbell’s ambition would have made the pairing with the DBTs untenable in the long run even without the substance abuse issues, and Cooley and Hood obviously deserve credit for letting the band serve as an incubator for as long as it did. Jason Isbell was always going to make his mark in a band named “Jason Isbell and…”

For a long time Isbell’s promise weighed on both he and his fans, and a lot of people began to wonder (I suspect that this group included Isbell himself) that it wasn’t going to Happen. Not Happening happens to talented people all the time, very often for the substance abuse reasons that endangered Isbell’s career. But then very suddenly Isbell Happened in the way that he and many others had always expected him to Happen. More than just happen, he began very rapidly to become a Prominent Man in American Life, the result of a combination of his obvious talent, his story of redemption, his incredibly talented wife, and his forthright approach to American politics. For me, the first three albums are Pre-Happening, the next two are Happening, and the next three (including Georgia Blue) are Post-Happening.

The two original Post-Happening albums are good, but they felt very much as if Isbell was trying very hard to say Something Important of the sort that a Prominent Man in American Life should say; the effort to achieve his potential seemed self-conscious in a way that influenced writing and production. This wasn’t just his somewhat more vocal politics; it’s one thing to write a song about troubled love and yet another to write a song about Troubled Love, and I felt that some of the localism that characterizes Isbell’s best work was getting lost in the effort to say something Big. If We Were Vampires is a great song but there are ways to approach it that are small and ways that are Big and on the Post-Happening albums Isbell consistently opted for Big, a decision that doesn’t play to Isbell’s songwriting strengths (intimacy and localism are key) and that sometimes becomes exhausting.

Weathervanes, by contrast, feels more like an album by enormously talented writer and musician who decided to write and perform a bunch of very good rock n’ roll and Americana songs. The production is less intrusive and while the results are emotional they are somehow less… laden. Some thoughts on those songs…

  • Death Wish: A banger about dealing with the self-desctructivness of someone that you love. In contrast to a lot of songs on this album it’s not just about addiction; you get the sense that addiction is a consequence rather than a cause, but substance abuse is clearly on Isbell’s mind.
  • King of Oklahoma: Popular music has rendered rather a lot of songs about opiate addiction, but not very many of them are written from the perspective of a former roofer who injured himself and now has to steal cooper wire in order to feed his addiction. Exceptional song, exceptional window into modern American addiction.
  • Strawberry Woman: A beautiful little acoustic number about Jason’s relationship with his wife, Amanda Shires. Brings you to tears if you listen to it closely enough.
  • Middle of the Morning: This was one of the earliest single from the album, and frankly it’s probably my least favorite song. I love the lyrics, but Isbell sometimes has a tendency to ask his voice to do a little too much, and is this case it’s a bit of a distraction.
  • Save the World: Uvalde, or more specifically how parents react to Uvalde and its kin. Guitars are fabulous but its tough to listen to while thinking about sending your kids to school every morning.
  • If You Insist: One of the best songs on the album. One person won’t leave another alone; I think it’s up to the listener to decide whether this is creepy or generous, especially as it’s told from the point of view of the botherer.
  • Cast Iron Skillet: Memory, pain, and torturous self-creation in the context of the local. Many think this is the centerpiece of the album and I don’t think I’d disagree.
  • When We Were Close: This is Isbell’s song about Justin Townes Earle and their unreconciled relationship at the time of Towne’s death. There’s a lot of anger here, some directed towards Earle, some directed towards himself, and a lot targeting the arbitrariness of addiction and death.
  • Volunteer: Another song about addiction, not from the point of view of the addicted so much as the people that they leave behind. This is a story that I think would be familiar with a very substantial proportion of America’s homeless population.
  • Vestavia Hills: Told from the point of view of an older musician who has let his relationship with a younger colleague lapse (some feel it’s written about Isbell from the point of view of Mike Cooley, but I don’t know if that’s sustainable), terrific song about specific kinds of anxiety and how even adjacency can drive that anxiety.
  • White Beretta: A nineteen year old kid doesn’t know how to deal with his girlfriend’s abortion, and doesn’t know how to deal with his grief about the whole situation many years later.
  • This Ain’t It: A helluva song where Isbell uncranks his real rock n’ roll vocals and just lets loose. Apparently he’s been ending sets with this one which makes a ton of sense because it’s a great song for a mic drop.
  • Miles: An easy-going rocker about the spaces that open up between parents and between parents and children as a girl grows up… and I’m sorry I just emoted.

To my mind this is the best album of Isbell’s Post-Happening era… and it’s also clearly better than any of his Pre-Happening albums. That puts it up against Southeastern and Something More than Free, and I think right now I’m prepared to rank it above the former and below the latter.

With respect to Erik’s post on his favorite ten Isbell songs, here are what I think would be my top 20. I haven’t listed any Weathervanes songs in the top ten not because they’re undeserving, but rather because I need more time to fully evaluate them.

First TenNext Ten
1OutfitHudson Commodore
2Decoration DayTraveling Alone
3Songs that She sang in the ShowerFlying Over Water
4CodeineNever Gonna Change
5Relatively EasyKing of Oklahoma
6Last of My KindCast Iron Skillet
7If We Were VampiresStrawberry Woman
824 FramesIf You Insist
9Speed Trap TownThis Ain’t It
10Super 8Seven Mile Island
By Saverivers at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3551870
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