For a comparatively brief moment in the mid-1960s, Muscle Shoals, Alabama was the unlikely epicenter of a major American songwriting renaissance. Here are some of the names: Arthur Alexander, Donnie Fritts, Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, O.C. Smith, Joe South, Tony Joe White. Toss Bobbie Gentry into that mix, on style if not geography, and the list is not complete, regardless.
Style matters, for in those turbulent times these writers and their collaborators fused the vocal passion of African-American soul and gospel to an Anglo-Saxon storytelling tradition which goes back at least to Beowulf: Tough, hard, passionate, unflinching songs, unrepentant in their sense of place and direct in their stubborn Southernness.
That is a powerful pile of names to spade across the work of Jason Isbell, as his second solo album, named for his band, is, well, only his second solo album. And he's almost 30. It's not simply that he lives in Florence, Alabama, just outside Muscle Shoals, nor that he recorded Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit at the famed FAME studio there. That guarantees nothing.
The songs will stand on their own.
The opening "Seven-Mile Island" manages simultaneously to evoke the long-ago sounds of Traffic (who have their own Muscle Shoals connection) and to serve as an oblique eulogy to the regionally famous harmonica player Topper Price, and yet it's about a failed father, a birthing mother, an island on which banished Native Americans congregated, a place where Jason and his dad used to go to collect arrowheads. All of those things said eloquently in just over four minutes, and there are layers unexamined by that long sentence.
That's the only song that sounds just like that, says those things ("Good," for example, has the rock urgency of Big Star, "No Choice In The Matter" is classic soul, complete with horns), though they all come from deep within Isbell, no matter how far he distances himself, no matter that "Soldiers Get Strange" is mostly his imagination at work trying to make sense of how those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan feel. No matter that "Cigarettes And Wine" claims, midway through painting a very direct vignette, "I know that ain't much of a line/But it's the Gods' own truth."
That's enough. Leave the songs to be found, to talk for themselves. But let Jason explain, just a bit. "I always say that writing a song, first and foremost, to me, is a way of teaching myself how I feel about something," he says. "And that's the purpose it serves, really, more than anything else."
But the last thing Jason says about his new record is this: "I want it to be known that it's a band record. I want it to be known that it's something we all did together. Even though I wrote the songs, it was a very inclusive project."
Official website: jasonisbell.com