Tag Archives: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Sound ‘Round: Steve Earle / Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

The ballads of the Outlaw and the Family Man

Steve Earle – So You Wannabe An Outlaw (Warner Bros.)

There’s a cantankerous side to Steve Earle that’s always made me keep my distance even while sympathizing with his politics. Anti-death penalty, yup. Anti-war, amen. But the deal breaker was a stiff outlaw disposition that rendered his music a demonstration in attitude over the savvy songwriting he displayed decades ago. These dozen songs comprise Earle’s most enjoyable and consistent album this century. Go figure it happened when he at long last softened his crusty side. Why now, at 62 years old? Because a life of hard living ain’t worth spit. In fact, the cons are many and listed plainly on the opening title track. Home is nonexistent. Friends are a luxury. Rewards are unfulfilling. Mom is a snitch. Old habits die hard, which is why much of the first half reeks of cigarette smoke, old whiskey and turgid riffs. He’s too old to outrun the lawman, but he’s seasoned enough to pen a convincing ballad. The best song knows “falling is the easy part” when it comes to love. Another knows the toughest man ain’t too tough to cry. And yet another knows the one person in this godforsaken world worth pleasing is Mama. Sounds like Mama Earle did good. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “This Is How It Ends” / “You Broke My Heart” / “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)

A decade has passed since Isbell left his drinking buddies in the Drive-By Truckers, and it seems he can finally smile without the help of Jim Beam. Sobriety has its rewards — a clear mind and a clearer perspective, sure. But nothing as eye-opening as fatherhood, a doorway he stepped through two years ago and a role that makes him twice as anxious as the booze ever did. His dread is mostly political. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know” puts it mildly. But politics is an endeavor best left to songwriters who recognize the human element behind every protest anthem. His aim is true on “White Man’s World,” wherein he pleads for gender and racial equality, but the song lacks an emotional heft due to Isbell’s lyrical solipsism. His stump speech sputters, but his home-spun tales of comfortable domesticity suit him better. “If We Were Vampires” knows a good love song is a good death song: “Maybe we’ll get 40 years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” And the finale finds eternal joy in casual moments these terrible times can’t diminish: singing songs with family on the front porch, counting stars with his wife, and fatherhood. Definitely fatherhood. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Something to Love” / “If We Were Vampires” / “Tupelo”