Album Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
As a member of the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell was responsible for penning some of the Southern rock band’s best and most beloved songs, including “Danko/Manuel,” “The Day John Henry Died,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love.” However, having to record and tour with your ex-wife (DBT bassist Shonna Tucker) must, in a word, suck–no matter how amicable the split is proclaimed to be. Whatever the reason, Isbell left the Truckers in 2007 and struck out on his own, the result being Sirens of the Ditch, an album which, save two or three songs, was generic alt-country and failed to live up to most fans’ expectations.
With his second studio album, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Isbell and his backing band combine various elements of the Southern music tradition including ’70s-era classic rock a la The Allman Brothers, Muscle Shoals soul, and some straight-up country music. The resulting sound is a bit uneven at times—and it certainly doesn’t live up to the impossibly high standards Isbell set for himself during his tenure with The Drive-By Truckers—yet it’s a suitable soundtrack for spending a sultry summer night on a back porch or holding down a stool in some smoky dive bar.
Despite the different musical genres Isbell incorporates into his sound, some songs on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit seem as though he and the band are just going through the motions. “Good” is paint-by-number rock, and although “Cigarettes and Wine” starts out nice enough it drags on for almost seven minutes, long enough to try the attention span of all but the most dedicated listener, even despite Isbell’s soulful vocals. A nice change of pace is the instrumental “Coda” to “However Long,” as it showcases the talent of the 400 Unit, especially keyboardist Derry DeBorja and guitarist Browan Lollar (the band does not have a permanent drummer, which almost certainly contributes to the record’s unevenness).
As with Sirens of the Ditch, the strongest song of this album is about soldiers and war. “Soldiers Get Strange” is something of a companion piece to “Dress Blues,” a fan favorite about Corporal Matthew Conley, a Marine from Isbell’s small Alabama hometown who was killed in Iraq. While “Dress Blues” describes the ways in which Conley’s death affected an entire town, “Soldiers Get Strange” focuses on a topic few musicians have the guts to address: returning soldiers afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to cope with civilian life. Not since folkie Peter La Farge penned “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” has a song so succinctly stated the psychological consequences of war, and when Isbell sings “It’s not the dreams that keep you up late/It’s not the world you saw incinerate/It’s not the way that her figure has changed/It’s just that a soldier gets strange/Most of all you got strange,” it’s impossible not to simultaneously feel sympathy for those who are suffering and rage towards world leaders who continue to lead their men and women to war and subsequently ignore them upon their homecoming.
Sirens of the Ditch may have a few stronger individual songs, but this new record is definitely a more cohesive album, as though Isbell and the 400 Unit have finally found their own particular sound and are beginning the process of settling in to it. The songwriting talent is definitely there, the voice is there, and when the music fully catches up, Jason Isbell will be the Americana force to be reckoned with that DBT fans knew all along he could be.
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