Jason Isbell takes over production duties on this 6th album with the 400 Unit, resulting in one of this year’s finest albums, in a year that’s been full of them.
Up until now Jason has counted on Dave Cobb to produce the first 5 albums but here the singer/songwriter and guitarist takes the bull firmly by the horns and wrestles these 13 songs into an album that feels both very personal and very much like it was made by a band.
There is a temptation, when listening to Isbell’s lyrics, to assume they are all based on personal experience. After all, fans know about his past problems with addiction and the ups and downs of his marriage to Amanda Shires (see the documentary Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed).
So, when the opening line of the opening song is, ‘Did you ever love a woman with a death wish?”, it makes one feel a bit uneasy.
But remember, Isbell is a songwriter first and foremost. Sure he draws from personal experience…When We Were Close is a tribute of sorts to his old friend Justin Townes Earle and White Beretta details ending a pregnancy as a teenager… but like all great songwriters, Jason knows how to draw from experience and the world around him to tell stories that we all can find truth in.
Just listen to King Of Oklahoma, the second track. It’s about a guy struggling with addiction as his family falls apart. I doubt this down-on-his luck mirrors Isbell but Jason knows the guy and feels his pain.
Meanwhile the music is classic Springsteen/Petty/Earle. There is a stinging guitar solo and plenty of power in the rhythm section, making these tracks feel very alive.
Isbell is still an American living in the South and he addresses the world around him…Save The World is a statement…well, more than that, on gun control, as the protagonist is startled by balloons popping at the grocery store forcing him to look for the exit door. Sadly many Americans are living in this same fear that Jason describes and one can’t help but wonder how much longer this can go on.
Yes, Isbell wants to save the world, but he can dig deep into maters of the heart as well. One of my favourite tracks is Strawberry Woman, a simple love song with a bit of harmonica from Mickey Raphael and pedal steel thrown in for good measure.
This is not quite a perfect record.
Two tracks…Middle Of The Morning and Miles wear their influences a little too blatantly. The first is a direct re-write of Gregg Allman’s Midnight Rider while the latter is Neil Young’s Down By The River with different lyrics (with a bit of Beatles thrown in at the end).
But these are relatively minor quibbles. As a whole, Weathervanes is a very solid, often moving, collection of songs written sung and played by an artist at the top of his (or their) game.