The title of Jason Isbell’s sixth album, The Nashville Sound, could be construed as either wildly presumptive or absurdly aspirational. In truth, it’s a little bit of both. The idea of a homespun artist like Isbell eclipsing any number of corporate country megastars as the public face of “the Nashville sound” is far-fetched, but it’s no longer entirely laughable. The bro-country backlash has made Isbell’s cerebral, folky brand of songwriting somewhat en vogue to the point that even the most mainstream country artists have started chasing at least the perception of the rootsy authenticity he exudes.
Even if Isbell only plays a miniscule role in defining what comes out of Nashville these days, he’s exercising that influence the best he can on The Nashville Sound. The album is more eclectic and energetic than his other recent efforts, which have seen Isbell’s voice and vitality as a songwriter crystallize just as his sound, for better or worse, has become slicker and more uniform. It may not entirely be the full-throated “return to rock” we were promised, but it’s convincing evidence that the Nashville sound can and should encompass more than country—alternative or otherwise—and mean more than just somber acoustic dirges about sobriety and marriage.
As the first album since 2009 to be credited to both Isbell and his longtime touring band, the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound does showcase a more full-band electric sound than the more intimate acoustic-based releases that have exploded Isbell’s popularity in recent years. In places, it’s also less intensely personal and even mildly socio-political: “I’ve had enough of the white man’s blues/I’ve sang enough about myself,” he pronounces on “Hope the High Road.” That song’s unvarnished platitudes about staying positive in the face of political or personal adversity—not to mention its full-bodied electric sound—sounded like the promise of a stylistic departure when it was released as The Nashville Sound lead single. In the context of the full album, however, the lyrics come across as a tad gauche considering most of the songs that surround it remain ensconced in the detail-oriented character-based storytelling style that Isbell has become known for. On the other hand, the steaming guitars and the pulse-quickening urgency with which the 400 Unit attacks the beat are indeed indicative of the majority of the album.
The Nashville Sound’s most striking departure from Isbell’s recent style is “Cumberland Gap.” To call it the best full-bore rock song Isbell has written since he was in the Drive-By Truckers would be damning it with faint praise, since the track has little competition. But it smokes and broods and captures the anxiety and despair that pervades the life of its mining-town-resident narrator far more evocatively than the countless post-election op-eds that have been penned on similar subjects. The seething “White Man’s World” covers similar terrain, its stinging slide guitar and sawing fiddle—courtesy of Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires—stirring up a cloud of tension as thick as the inescapable everyday racial and gender animus the lyrics describe.
Isbell makes a few other welcome diversions throughout the album: the towering, noisy guitar and synth motif that bookends “Anxiety”; the Wilco-esque poppy folk rocker “Molotov”; the hushed Elliott Smith-aping “Chaos and Clothes.” But even when he remains firmly in his comfort zone, drawing once again on his quieter, sensitive side, Isbell continues to excel. “Tupelo” is sweet, warm country rock that expertly showcases two of his primary linchpins: big choruses that play up his booming bourbon barrel voice, and lyrics that revel in minute detail, rendering his settings and characters with exquisite clarity.
“If We Were Vampires” highlights Isbell’s strengths even more sharply. Nobody writes songs about long-term romantic devotion as well as him, and “Vampires” might be his most affecting attempt yet, surpassing even his own “Flagship” and “Traveling Alone.” Atop a quiet fingerpicked pattern, he grapples with still far-off mortality, “knowing that this can’t go on forever.” “[I’ll] give you every second I can find/And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind,” he intones, his voice succumbing to a heartbreaking crack on the last line. On an album where it’s a musical and lyrical anomaly, the song hits even harder.