Back in 2013, Beyoncé’s masterpiece ‘XO’ cannily perceived how our awareness of death might only serve to intensify the heightened emotions of love, and hence be a good thing: ‘We don’t have forever/Baby daylight’s wasting/You better kiss me… Before they turn the lights out/Before our time has run out/Baby love me lights out!’ Now here we are in 2017 and alt-country hero Jason Isbell has written us an imaginative song in much the same vein: ‘If We Were Vampires’ ponders what would happen if he and his wife were never to shuffle off this mortal coil, and concludes that ‘I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand… Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift.’
It’s one of many quietly ingenious, heart-warming moments on this tender album. The album ends, for instance, with these ace words of advice to his daughter: ‘Just find what makes you happy girl/And do it ’til you’re gone.’ A family man and proud, The Nashville Sound continues Isbell’s journey towards contentment, one that started with his last solo album Something More Than Free. However, it also remembers the dark times that went before that, as witnessed in 2013’s Southeastern where his past as an alcoholic was both directly and obliquely explored. So Isbell understands why a working-class stiff might turn to drink as an escape from his life in ‘Cumberland Gap’, and how a miner might indulge in long-distance sex because his short-distance existence is so unbearable in ‘Tupelo’; although it must be said that his sympathy doesn’t extend to the US President whose election campaign promised to restore these character’s industries – Trump’s agenda frightens him, particularly when considering a future for his daughter, a future that he nevertheless still believes in: ‘I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation/I think the man upstairs musta took a vacation/I still have faith, but I don’t know why/Maybe it’s the fire in my daughter’s eye.’
This album is extraordinary then in terms of its searching, optimistic lyrics. And if the music is slightly less extraordinary, well, it doesn’t detract from what remains an essential purchase. The lumbering albatross of this album is the 7-minute ‘Anxiety’, which is awkwardly slung round the middle of its neck and is an unfortunate distraction from much of the good work elsewhere. Isbell’s vocals are another distraction, proving to lack some of the gritty character and charisma of many of his characters – I’ve long considered his voice to be a tad too pretty, too smooth.
Nevertheless it’s great to have the 400 Unit back supporting him, their large sound beefing up well over half the tracks with potent crunchy guitar and drums. But the nicest musical touches of all come from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, who appears on fiddle and backup vocals throughout, and who doesn’t just add subtle variety but also makes clearer the familial atmosphere that imbues these recordings with a warm fuzz.
Country music is great at disproving the lie that domesticity in art is naff, boring or somehow ‘bourgeois’. In The Nashville Sound, as elsewhere in Isbell’s career, the simple matter of settling down and raising a family sounds like the greatest adventure of them all.