As Isbell works the vortex between folk, country and rock, a range of influences surface, including Prine, but the sound is distinctly his own. A master of lyrical surprise, Isbell paints childhood summerscapes, recalls secret meeting places and then pierces the rapture with reminders of brokenness and hurt. In “Dreamsicle,” for example, the taste of ice cream on a summer night gives way to mama “curling up beside me, crying to herself.”
A different kind of friction animates “Overseas,” where a guitar hook that would make Tom Petty proud lends majesty to a wistful lament about separation. The album’s early singles, “What’ve I Done to Help?” and “Be Afraid,” will play well in concert, but there are better songs here. Isbell is at his best when he’s leaning into life, where things are never easy.
The 400 Unit shines throughout. “River” features Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, playing fiddle and it’s glorious. When Isbell sings a lyric, Shires plays a little flourish that sounds like she’s demonstrating what he just sang about — like commentary. She’s been doing that for years, but it’s still a marvel.
Isbell’s music has that grow-on-you quality that makes it hard to measure instantly against his previous work. That’s not a flaw, to be clear — and it’s safe to say this album will start some new arguments.