Jason Isbell does many things well: He's an ace guitarist and supremely talented songwriter, and he's been rewarded for his work in recent years with critical acclaim, No. 1 albums and Grammy Awards. Beyond his music, Isbell has gained a reputation as a sage, yet snarky, Twitter user -- but he is truly at his best when he's getting personal.
Isbell has a knack for not only writing self-reflections that also turn the mirror outward, but also vivid story songs that include true-life details yet feel universal. On Reunions, his seventh solo album, "What've I Done to Help" falls into the former category, while "Running With Our Eyes Closed" is the latter -- but those are only two of 10 tracks, and which category they fall into is sometimes blurry.
Ahead of the release of Reunions, out Friday (May 15), Isbell admitted that the pressure he felt to live up to fans' and critics' seemingly sky-high expectations put a strain on his marriage -- to musician Amanda Shires, who is part of his band, the 400 Unit, in addition to her work as a solo artist and member of the Highwomen -- and brought out pieces of his personality that made both him and her less than pleased with him. Songs such as "Overseas" and "Running With Our Eyes Closed," among others, present that fallibility.
“There are a lot of ghosts on this album. Sometimes the songs are about the ghosts of people who aren’t around anymore, but they’re also about who I used to be, the ghost of myself," Isbell says of the record. "I found myself writing songs that I wanted to write 15 years ago, but in those days, I hadn’t written enough songs to know how to do it yet. Just now have I been able to pull it off to my own satisfaction. In that sense it’s a reunion with the me I was back then."
In addition to Shires, the 400 Unit are Derry deBorja, Chad Gamble, Jimbo Hart and Sadler Vaden; David Crosby and Rival Sons' member Jay Buchanan also assisted with Reunions, which was produced by Dave Cobb. Keep reading to hear five of its most personal (sometimes subtly so) tracks.
"Dreamsicle" perfectly captures the beauty and the chaos of a tumultuous childhood. The son of teenage parents who later divorced, Isbell weaves scenes of a broken home and broken promises with one simple, fleeting one.
"A dreamsicle on a summer night in a folding lawn chair / The witch's ring around the moon / Gotta get home soon," Isbell sings in the chorus, over and over again painting a picture that proves that, even in tough times, there's still small bits of perfection to be found.
The first song Isbell wrote for Reunions, "Only Children" is a tribute to a late friend, whom the singer, who grew up in rural Alabama, describes to GQ as "kind of like an oasis in one of those small Southern towns." Like "Dreamsicle," the song skillfully describes days of innocence and big dreams -- and the days when that innocence is lost and only some of those big dreams come true.
"'Heaven's wasted on the dead' / That's what your mama said / When the hearse was idling in the parking lot," Isbell sings. "She said you thought the world of me / And you were glad to see they finally let me be an astronaut."
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Neal Casal's 2019 death by suicide wrecked Isbell, but it particularly shook his wife, Shires, who was quite close to the musician. "St. Peter's Autograph" finds Isbell telling Shires that, while he has processed his grief, he's there to help her through hers.
"What can I do to help you sleep? / I'll work hard and work for cheap," Isbell sings, adding later, "I can’t comprehend your pain / But I got arms and I got ears / And I will always be right here."
Addiction is a subject about which Isbell, who has been sober since 2012, can offer advice. Knowing he has "a whole lot" of fans in recovery, Isbell tells Variety, he set out with that goal and came up with "It Gets Easier" -- which sagely cautions, "It gets easier, but it never gets easy / I can say it's all worth it, but you won't believe me" -- while also dropping in a few "inside jokes" to help personalize the story, to both him and his listeners.
"There’ve been quite a few times when a cop will get behind me and I’ll think, ‘Okay, go for it, buddy! I’ve got all my papers together here. I know where my insurance card is.’ That used to not be the case at all: I’d have to rummage through looking for everything, and more often than not, I would be a little bit drunk and start thinking, ‘Well, how many did I have? How long has it been?’" Isbell recalls. "In a song like that, you do want to say something that’s widely understood, but there also should be ... some details where people think, ‘Oh, not everybody’s going to get this,’ because then they feel more heard themselves.”
Isbell knows how to tug at listeners' heartstrings, but "Letting You Go" is a new look for him. Truly, did anyone ever expect him to write a absolutely perfect father-daughter dance song?
"Being your daddy comes natural / The roses just know how to grow," Isbell sings in the chorus. "It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going / The hard part is letting you go / The hard part is letting you go."
Written about, and for, his daughter, Mercy Rose, who will turn five in September, the darling song finds him recalling his baby girl's first days, and imagining her wedding day. "I wish I could walk with them back through your life to see / Every last minute of every last day," Isbell admits of Mercy's future spouse. "The best I can do is to let myself trust that you know who'll be strong enough to carry your heart."