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Disc review: Jason Isbell, Something More Than free

Country

Jason Isbell

Something More Than Free

[Southeastern records]

3.5 stars

An antidote to bro-country, to be sure, Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free” is also an incredibly high-quality singer-songwriter affair with abundant charms revealed with subtlety and skill, and the sort of hooks that catch the listener deep beneath the skin and hold them captive for a good long while. It’s not exactly difficult to point out that Isbell is the sort of country artist who stands for everything clowns like Florida Georgia Line have ignored in their quest for the gold-covered low-hanging fruit. This is country music rooted in folk and cousin to rock ’n’ roll, but it shuns the anthemic tendencies of arena-country in favor of detailed observations, poetic vignettes and the sort of understated character sketches that populated Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright,” Warren Zevon’s entire catalog, and the Ryan Adams who broke our heart with “Heartbreaker.”

Isbell iknows how to build emotional intensity in a song without ever resorting to melodrama or grandstanding. Witness “How to Forget,” a slow-burning country strummer with an aching melancholy brimming just beneath the surface. When Isbell hits the chorus on this one, your heart splits open, and all the pain you’ve ever felt is transformed into empathy for the singer – he’s been there, he gets it, and he makes you feel better.

“Children of Children” is bathed in the sort of reverb you interpret as a memory gone soft around the edges – the light in this particular sonic painting is diffuse and dream-inducing. “Something More Than Free” celebrates the working man as thinking man, more poignant observations offered in the vernacular of the everyman, with gentle strings and elegant piano haunting the back room of the mix. “Flagship” is a love song that steers clear of cliché by finding rich implications in everyday observations – as if the minutiae of the day-to-day reality we so often ignore is worth being spoken of in the language of ornate myth.

This is country music that matters. Smart, humble, understatedly produced, beautifully sung, incredibly well-crafted, “Something More than Free” is clearly one of the finest albums of the year.

- Jeff Miers

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