Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, out today, is a lyrical tour de force powered by authentic production and bold emotion. One moment, Isbell rises up in protest, bravely confronting and angrily challenging his surroundings (i.e., “Cumberland Gap,” “Anxiety”), and the next he retreats, seeking comfort and solace (i.e., “Chaos and Clothes,” “If We Were Vampires”). The songs are vulnerable, evocative, and memorable.
For as much as Isbell’s now-trademark lyrics have to say, these songs also simply sound good. Isbell teamed up again with Dave Cobb, the producer with whom he’s collected multiple Grammys and other awards, to record The Nashville Sound at Cobb’s home base, Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A. While similarities to Isbell’s previous albums are present in the songwriting and on gentler numbers, this latest collection packs more energy – its poignant messages emphasized with an army of artful instrumentation, courtesy of The 400 Unit and Cobb’s authentic style.
Standout track “White Man’s World” is bold and courageous, trudging straight through the often-tiptoed subject of white male privilege. The lyrics gain confidence as the track progresses, bolstered by electric guitar that pokes and nudges reluctant listeners with increasing force, until the song has all but thrown a sucker punch in an effort to say “Listen, I’m talking to you!” It’s jarring – but probably shouldn’t be – and Isbell & co. remain ever tasteful while refusing to tread lightly. (Gold star to Shires for her haunting fiddle accompaniment, which is excellent throughout the project but here seems to shoot directly to the bloodstream.)
Other notably meaty tracks include the rollicking “Cumberland Gap” and the pleading “Anxiety.” The former employs frantic drums and guitar to grapple with leaving home and family in search of a better life, but instead comes to the desperate conclusion: “Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole?” The latter is a letter to anxiety itself, imploring it to loosen its grip, with the lyrics and metallic guitar serving as both a release for those who suffer from anxiety and an explanatory tool for outsiders trying to understand.
The record offers several softer points, allowing for brief, often melancholic exhales between power pieces. “Tupelo” details the devastation that seeps in after hopeful expectations for a place and person crumble in the face of reality: “The wars between the weekends tore our playhouse down.” “If We Were Vampires” stuns with an unlikely sparkle – subtle at first, dusted with the sadness of the chorus (“Likely one of us will have to spend some time alone”) – and then blinding once the saccharine, heartbreaking third verse hits (“If we were vampires and death was a joke … I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand”).
“Molotov”‘s steady, rocking guitar fearfully questions the staying power of romance as life brings major changes, while “Chaos and Clothes” is understated and wise, chronicling the aftermath of a relationship with delicate fingerpicking and stark, eye-opening guidance: “You say love is hell but it’s the ghost of love that’s made you such a mess / Oh yes.”
The album’s sweet conclusion is likely a message to Isbell’s daughter, Mercy, as he struggles to understand the life she’ll inherit: “Don’t quite recognize the world that you call home / Just find what makes you happy, girl, and do it till you’re gone.” It’s preluded by the anthemic lead single “Hope the High Road,” which serves as the album’s “come together” moment. The lyrics highlight conflict – Isbell essentially puts to music his own and his peers’ reactions to the events of the past year – but ultimately, differences are cast aside in search of common ground.
The Nashville Sound asks the hard questions. Its strongest moments come in the form of unpleasant wake-up calls, but they’re often followed by reassuring embraces. Isbell is marching toward reality, but for every line (or entire track) that dwells in the darkest of corners, there’s one that cracks the blinds or slides the dimmer switch, letting light creep in and flood the project with a unifying relatability.
“When you said we had the same three wishes, I hope you weren’t being facetious / And I hope you still see fire inside of me.” – “Molotov”
“You’ve got the past on your breath, my friend / Now let’s name all the monsters you’ve killed.” – “Chaos and Clothes”
“But your mama loves to count the stars at night, so if I get a little chill then that’s alright.” – “Something to Love”
The Nashville Sound Track List:
Last of My Kind
White Man’s World
If We Were Vampires
Chaos and Clothes
Hope the High Road
Something to Love