As first lines of a song go: “This used to be a ghost town, but even the ghosts got out” simply has to be right up there.
That is how Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit start “Overseas”, arguably the standout track – there is plenty of choice to be fair, but the wonderful lead sound that Isbell gets here perhaps swings it – on “Reunions”. It is a line that surely marks Isbell out as one of the finest chroniclers of the human condition there is right now.
And yet, if we may borrow a line from perhaps the greatest (and Isbell uses it in the lyrics for the stunning “Only Children” too), “Reunions” is a record that relies on not just the human condition, but the human touch.
It is noticeable that in this age of live streaming gigs (I’ll confess I haven’t dived into this yet, maybe I should but the idea of experiencing music live on my laptop hasn’t enthused so far) Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires – who as always provides some genuinely beautiful harmonies here – did the launch for this in a Nashville Venue that was facing closure, while fans watched with them on Zoom. Perfect, too, because “Reunions” needed to be shared with a crowd, because it is all about people.
Right from the opener, “What Have I Done To Help”, both the longest song here and also the most soul infused, recalling Lambchop to me in parts, the characters (and only Isbell knows how much of him is in here) are front and centre. There is a brilliantly nail on the head thought in “…Help” too. The character and his family escape some disaster or other: “We send our thoughts and prayers to loved ones on the ground” he offers, before the pay-off. “But after a while? We just stopped looking down…..”
The 400 Unit are a wonderful band, and as always producer Dave Cobb (his work with Whiskey Myers alone deserves any bonus point you want to give), finds a way to harness it all together.
Although this isn’t a standard “singer-songwriter” record, “Dreamsicle” has its roots in that, a young kid looking for and dreaming of escape, sounds as widescreen as the night sky he is looking at, and as full of endless possibilities.
“Only Children” is another reflective one. Fragile, and talking of living “hand to mouth and reel to reel”, it is a true highlight and, as I’ve said, Shires is particularly brilliant here, and the idea that you are somehow with Isbell on this journey, at his side as he is struggling with these things, is never closer than “Overseas”.
There is a touch of Mark Knopfler’s guitar sound in “Running With Our Eyes Closed” and the way the piano and lap steel are in such synergy in “River” make that one perhaps the most “Americana” if you will, and it almost seems to float away.
“Be Afraid” is the counterbalance. Rock n roll writ large. “The stage belongs to you, you can bark and snap like a dog at the man who just tuned your guitar,” he sings here, perhaps reminding himself to stay grounded, perhaps dealing with his own insecurities. I suspect the latter is more likely.
“St. Peter’s Autograph” is a really interesting piece. Everyone will have their own take on it, perhaps. But for me it’s a tale of someone trying to help a lover through their grief, perhaps of a former lover of their own. “What do I do to let you know, that I am not haunted by his ghost” he asks, and simultaneously sounds the most haunted anyone does on this album. It is a deft piece of writing, and typical of “Reunions.”
If there’s a debate to be had about the personal nature of some of these, then not the last two I’d venture. “It Gets Easier”, puts his struggles to stay sober front and centre. Somehow the “rock” flavour here, the guitar solo, seem to indicate a bombast that knows that the struggle will be won. And the last one. “Letting You Go” is a beautiful piece about being a father of a young daughter (Isbell and Shires have a 4-year old) and ends the album with – to me anyway – the idea that as long as we have each other then somehow it will all be ok.
That’s “Reunions” in a nutshell too, re-connections, delving into the past to find a brighter future. It is one of the finest albums of Isbell’s already stellar career, and one of the finest, most lyrically interesting records this year.