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Album Review
Something More Than Free

Something More Than Free
by Jason Isbell


Review Date
17th July 2015
Reviewed by
Gerry le Roux

In 2013 Jason Isbell released Southeastern, to near-universal acclaim. Heralded as a singer-songwriter masterpiece, it received numerous 5-star reviews and topped many year-end album charts. Not surprisingly there’s high expectations surrounding his new album Something More Than Free.

The first impression of the record is a more relaxed, comfortable vibe. While the songs are still filled with troubled working-class characters and lives of hardship, much of the subject matter is more positive and celebratory than before. There’s definitely nothing here as harrowing as ‘Elephant’.

In a way the cover images of the two albums mirror the differences in style. On Southeastern Isbell faced the viewer head-on, his portrait well lit and detailed. On the new album, he looks sideways, his face partially obscured by a sun-flare, and there's additional visual detail in the background. Lyrically, Isbell also steps out of the spotlight on many songs, with less of the first-person confessionals favoured on Southeastern, allowing a wider range of characters to inhabit the songs.

With Something More Than Free Isbell delivers another masterclass in literate, mature song writing. Not someone to hide behind metaphors and abstraction, Isbell deals in richly descriptive stories. His songs are convincing because of the level of detail captured in the lyrics - the scenes are vividly pictured, the characters real and believable.

Musically, Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, offers tight and sympathetic backing. From classic country ('If It Takes A Lifetime') to quiet folk ('Flagship') to bluesy rock ('Palmetto Rose'), the band fleshes out the sound without intruding in any way. Many tiny details in the music refer back to the classics - a Stephen Stills guitar riff here, a Tony Garnier bassline there. The production (courtesy of Dave Cobb who also helmed Southeastern’) further adds to the sound - polished, yet natural and organic.

Something More Than Free is a truly impressive album - a real grower, and further proof of Isbell's formidable talents.


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