Two years ago, Isbell released Southeastern, a collection of introspective songs about the songwriter’s tangles with substance abuse, love and loss and all that other hard life shit. The result was a critically acclaimed album and a resurgent career — Isbell had written a deeply confessional work that sounded good, sold well and, yes, became a mainstay on the playlists of sportswriters across America.
At the time, Isbell was not necessarily a newcomer to this specific genre; in his early days, he was a trusted member of Drive-By Truckers, a young musical savant who wrote the song “Outfit”, a fantastic southern rock track about fathers, sons and the slow, painful emasculation of work. But Southeastern was something different, a master work on storytelling and blue-collar themes, thrusting Isbell into the space generally reserved for BRUCE!, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.
Jason Isbell is Sportswriter Music.
I am not sure why white, 30-something sportswriters are so attracted to Isbell’s music, just as I’m not sure why every white, middle-aged portswriter loves BRUCE! I mean, sure, I have some theories. But it remains a curious phenomenon, in part because the answer seems obvious, in part because I think it says something about the way sportswriters see themselves.
Isbell, no doubt, can write his ass off. He can craft a story and create a scene and distill a theme about life on the road into a song that can land with the force of a well-executed gut-punch. This is a guy, after all, who once wrote a song about the prospect of dying in a Super 8 Motel. And make no mistake: This is the kind of shit that a workaday sportswriter is forced to ponder while traveling solo on a winter night in Ames, Iowa, or Starkville, Miss., or Pullman, Wash.
A few weeks ago, Isbell released Something More Than Free, his much-anticipated follow-up to Southeastern. The album, in most ways, is a conventional extension of the ground covered in Southeastern. It’s a little happier, of course. Isbell is now a few years removed from a well-documented battle with alcoholism that served as the inspiration and impetus for Southeastern. He’s happily married. His career is surging.
But this is still classic Isbell, which means this is still Classic Sportswriter Music. You could call Isbell “Dad Rock”, and you probably wouldn’t be wrong. But I think that Sportswriter Music is a different strain of the same genome. “Dad Rock” has a certain aesthetic, whether it be Wilco, Neil Young or every band ever influenced by all the songs on Sticky Fingers. Sportswriter Music has the same aesthetic, but it’s best delivered by a frontman like Isbell or BRUCE!, somebody who can write a story worth listening to.
Isbell and Springsteen come from very different places — Springsteen was raised in Freehold Borough, N.J.; Isbell was raised in rural North Alabama, the son of a housepainter. But each occupies a familiar place, writing about America’s working class as both an insider and outsider. Springsteen wrote “Factory”; Isbell wrote “Outfit”. This, I think, is why I’ve always found it funny that white make sportswriters find a kinship in this sort of music.
The title track on Something More Than Free is about a character who holds down a blue-collar job, working construction, his life controlled by the hands of the clock and the back-breaking labor he puts in each day. It’s a beautiful meditation on work and America, and it also doesn’t really sound like anything I personally encounter in my life as a sportswriter.
And yet, I can’t stop listening. Jason Isbell is Sportswriter Music. Long live Jason Isbell.
Here are the five best tracks off Something More Than Free:
1. “Something More Than Free” At first, I had this song No. 2 behind “If It Takes a Lifetime”, but then I kept listening. After about 20 listens, I think this might be one of the five best songs Isbell has ever written, and perhaps the second-best song about work — behind “Outfit.”
Best line: “No more holes to fill and no more rocks to break, and no more loading boxes on the trucks for someone else’s sake.”
2. “If It Takes a Lifetime” This is the leadoff track on the album, and it just hits the spot — the kind of song you want to hear in the car at 8 a.m.
Best line: “I don’t keep liquor here, never cared for wine or beer, and working for the county keeps me pissing clear.”
3. “24 Frames”
This is quintessential Isbell — occupying that blurry space between country music and indie rock.
Best line: “You vanish so she can go drowning in a dream again.”
4. “Speed Trap Town” This could very well be the best song to ever traffic in high school football themes — well, at least since John Darnielle’s “The Fall of the High School Running Back.”
Best line: “Well it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game, sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name.”
5. “To a Band That I Loved” The final song on the album, there is surely some meta songwriting at place here. There is also a story. An interesting story. Good song, too.
Best line: “Somehow you put down my fears on a page, when I still had nothing to say. How I miss you today.”