I have been
obsessing over listening to the new Jason Isbell album, Something More Than Free, for the last week. It’s an amazing album. I think it’s even better than his first solo album, Southeastern, which I loved. It’s different, soundwise, for sure–not as stripped down, and it has some elements that evoke some of the better, less cheesy aspects of solid 90s albums (Wilco, Lucinda, maybe even occasional shades of Pearl Jam and Automatic For The People), and while my friend Alex and I have been texting each other the titles of several of the songs and replying with “YES! That one is amazing!”, I think the major difference in Something and Southeastern is that Southeastern was a great collection of songs with three or four masterful standouts (“Elephant,” “Cover Me Up,” and “Relatively Easy,”), several great stories and confessionals, and one (“Super 8”) that is a better live tune than recording, Something More Than Free is–and I’ve only ever said this about one other Album, Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road–textured like a great American novel. The songs are woven together so nicely as a literary whole that I don’t dare skip a single one. I want to digest every blue collar, every southern small town dream deferred, and every character he dreams up.
But while I think any incomplete listen to the album is, well, incomplete, there are two songs that I linger on a bit more than the rest: “The Life You Chose,” and “Speed Trap Town.”
Both songs are about leaving a small town–“Speed Trap” tells the story of a young man who makes the spur-of-the-moment decision to leave in the middle of the night while his father sits dying in the ICU, while “The Life You Chose” is a plea for a lost love (of some sort) to leave the life she knows (whatever that is) and run away into the unknown.
What I love about both songs is the way Isbell so gingerly balances detail and ambiguity. The narrator of “The Life” longs to leave his small town in Kentucky with a girl he knew once upon a time. From the beginning lines, I recognize so much:
Who are you if not the one I met
One July night before the town went wet?
Jack and Coke in your mama’s car
You were reading The Bell Jar
Noting the season of life by a small town’s referendum to serve booze, a girl who was exotic because she read Sylvia Plath- But then, Isbell socks us in the stomach with a wild ironic detail:
I got lucky when I finished school
Lost three fingers to a faulty tool
Settled out of court, I’m no one’s fool
You probably knew
There’s plenty left to make a getaway
Getting lucky and losing fingers are not things I generally associate with one another, but there’s a brand of small-town fatalism that Isbell cooks up here–and he serves it with a twist of longing and optimism:
Here I am inviting you to throw your life away
Victim of nostalgia maybe take away
Just tonight I realized that I am still in your backseat
Nothing I’ve had since has meant a thing to me
The details suck me in, but what makes the song so powerful is the mystery of what we don’t know. Is this in his head or is it a real dialogue? What does he know about what his exotic, Sylvia Plath reading crush made of her life? And perhaps most important to me–how old is this memory? This is a very different fantasy if the narrator is 20 or if he’s 30 or 40 or 50. And just how much money is really left? If he’s never been out of small town Kentucky, does he really know how far it’ll go? Or is he making empty promises to himself? Does he have a chance, or is this just a 21st Century version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”?
In terms of storytelling, “Speed Trap Town” is hashed out a bit more. We get more details about family, though not a whole lot, and while we assume that the narrator is the only one his philandering dad has left, we don’t know that for sure. He’s suffocating under the weight of people’s concern, the small town gossip, and, of course, being there for the man who chose not to be a father. Unlike “The Life You Chose,” the choice to leave is not just fantasy, but it comes as a surprise to the narrator:
But it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight
When I realized he’ll never be alright
Sign my name and say my last goodbye, then decide
That there’s nothing here that can’t be left behind
and he just drives–and finds himself somewhere, resting, and maybe figuring out the next steps. Again, the details paint a great tableaux, but they are just enough to beg a million questions:
The road got blurry when the sun came up
So I slept a couple hours in the pickup truck
Drank a cup of coffee by an Indian mound
A thousand miles away from that speed trap town
Will he go back? Where’s he heading? Will this place where he’s drinking coffee be just fine?
The first setting I ever knew, and the first setting I really ever wrote about was small town Kentucky. These two songs evoke a lot of characters and images that ring true. In fact, given that there are several unexcavated mounds in my Home Town, I can imagine the character from “Speed Trap Town” driving all night from somewhere in Alabama (Isbell’s home state) and ending up in my hometown, while the character from “The Life You Chose,” is still stuck in my hometown, pining after the girl who went to college while he didn’t. Such is Isbell’s gift–he tells stories that hit you hard because they’re your stories, but they’re nothing like anything you would think to write.
But it sure makes you hope you will.
If you haven’t heard the whole album yet, do yourself a favor. And just to help you out, I’ve embedded it below. Enjoy