In any kind of art, there are pieces created to appeal to the masses and there are pieces created to capture a moment. The former are often done on a deadline, while the latter most generally come as they will. In that sense, songs are no different than television shows or food. On one side, you have the generic commercial grub meant for mass consumption; on the other, there’s the poetic, artful fare aimed at discerning tastes.
Jason Isbell currently reigns in that realm, the one in which songs aren’t just songs; they are sonic snapshots of our world. On his new Reunions album, as on previous releases, he sketches these lives in stunning, stark relief, backed by his stellar band, the 400 Unit. Together with producer Dave Cobb, the crew manages at least one notable difference with Reunions — the sound is somehow grittier and more refined, more urgent and more soulful, all at once.
As usual, Isbell uses his platform to amplify voices other than his own. The brisk, shuffling album opener “What Have I Done to Help,” along with the brawny rocker “Be Afraid,” both look at the issues of responsibility and accountability that too many powerful people eschew in a time of immense inequality. It’s a message that we, frankly, don’t hear enough of, especially from Isbell’s straight, white male demographic.
Isbell turns the lens on his own life, as well. On the beautifully breezy “Dreamsicle,” he softens his voice so that the 41-year-old man he is now easily sounds like the 14-year-old boy he was then, navigating the challenges of parental divorce and disappointment. Further in, with the gently plaintive “St. Peter’s Autograph,” he extends his heart and his hand to his partner in a time of deep sorrow.
In a recent interview, Isbell noted that, for him, a song is done when it doesn’t sound like a song, but rather feels like a world of its own. He hits that mark in track after track, but none more so than the absolutely mesmerizing “Only Children.” It’s one of several here that confront ghosts from the past and present. The guitar tones on that one, as much as every other element, do their part to fulfill the song’s destiny as one of his all-time best.
One of the truly magical elements of Isbell’s writing is his shunning of formula. Even when he utilizes a fairly standard song form, he very often changes up the lines in each subsequent chorus so, while you know where he’s going, you never quite know how he’s going to get there. The one certainty is that he won’t take the short cut. Ever. That’s the kind of too-obvious sleight-of-hand a true master leaves to the hucksters.