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THE WOW OF ASCENSION DAY - Belfast Telegraph Column 23.5.2020

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT - REUNIONS

Reunions

I don’t believe that the Cornovarius was God given but I do believe that God can use it for the good of earth and we humans upon it. Likewise, I do not believe that Jason Isbell’s alcoholism was God given but my has Isbell’s recovery from it set him above most every other songwriter of his generation.

Oh I would be into that Isbell sound whatever. I love that borderline between rock and country, particularly when it is inhabited by a purist songwriter. That is the homeland of Isbell and his 400 Unit. He stands with the Springsteens, Pettys and Mellencamps as much as he is up to neck in Nashville.

What though raises Isbell above the bar is his introspection. He asks the daily questions that my searching of soul needs. His songs are more consistently a soundtrack to my spiritual journey than most other artists. 

Even U2! Where I would go to U2 for theology, I would go to Isbell for the personal. I’d almost call it discipleship. I believe that the courageous challenge of getting and staying sober are the reason for such a posture and therefore the songs.

Reunions can be described perfectly in so many poetic lines from the record. I’ll begin with a couplet from River: - 

 

“But now I'm tired and a little bit confused

Regarding what I meant to do and what I did”

 

Reunions are songs about what a human being should be doing. It is about how to be a good person, husband, father and in the working out of vocation. Isbell spends a lot of time with the ghosts of his past, in regret, learning and forgiveness.

He then brings that critique to bear on how now to live. The opening lines are telling and a wonderful mantra:

 

What've I done to help?

What've I done to help?

Somebody save me

What've I done to help?

What've I done to help?

And not myself?

 

There it is. A searching of the past. I need to be fixed and an ambition to help others and not just himself. I am with him not only in singing along but in the excavating of soul and determination to contribute.

My current favourite song Be Afraid applies all of this to Isbell’s vocation. He is asking for more from his peers in the music industry suggesting that they are soft and compromising and not using their currency to help others and change the world. 

 

And if your words add up to nothing

Then you're making a choice

To sing a cover when we need a battle cry

 

Isbell believes that there has really been a better time for a battle cry and suggests that we should commit to change no matter the cost. I find that his chorus speaks as much to a Presbyterian minister in Northern Ireland as it does a singer in Nashville:

 

Be afraid, be very afraid

Do it anyway

 

Elsewhere I will turn to Letting You Go when my daughter goes off to University and It Gets Easy (but it never gets easier) will be a helpful companion as life throws losses of any sort my way.

If the content of Reunions resonates in my soul more than most other rock albums have in recent years, so too the sound. Southeastern was my album of the year back in 2013 and though I’ve loved Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound, Reunions is even more immediate and accessible. 

The opening What Have I Done To Help come across all Michael Kiwanuka with its fluid funky bass line and Mark Knopfler’s guitar sound influences a couple or three others. Everything is ear grabbing. 

Isbell's lyrics are trademark. He's almost better than anyone else mentioned in this review for his vivid images, short stories, wonderful rhymes, fascinating rhythms and memorable lines. 

If we give it time and Reunions will grab our soul too and give them a good spring clean and maybe make us all better human beings. Now that is a record!

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