Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Weathervanes

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Jason Isbell's music rarely suggests that Bruce Springsteen is a major influence on his work, but since he hit his stride with the brave and brilliant Southeastern in 2013, he's grown into one of the strongest and most important artists in American rock, perhaps not a peer of Springsteen's, but certainly someone in the same worthy tradition. Like Springsteen, Isbell is a superb guitarist and songwriter with a keen eye for the details of working-class lives and an intuitive understanding of his part of the world, with a band that's every bit as gifted as he is. Isbell also shares Springsteen's belief in the value of hard work and the need to challenge himself, and just as his then-newfound sobriety pushed Isbell to up the creative ante with Southeastern, 2023's Weathervanes finds him shaking things up a bit to keep himself sharp. Isbell produced Weathervanes himself after regularly working with Dave Cobb from Southeastern onward, and if the sound of the album isn't radically different, the feel is leaner and more direct while still full-bodied and richly detailed. Isbell confidently takes the lead but makes room for some striking, soulful interplay with his band, especially guitarist Sadler Vaden, and they gently push one another into some of their finest work to date, especially on the seven-minute closing track "Miles." From his first recordings with the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell's talent as a songwriter has been a given, and he's applied his skill in the service of songs that reflect the challenges and uncertainties of the larger world with a tighter focus each time he goes into the studio. In some respects, Weathervanes feels like his Born in the U.S.A. -- on the surface a brilliantly crafted rock album with anthemic melodies and outstanding performances, but one that also speaks eloquently about the high stakes of American life. It's not as glossy as Born in the U.S.A. and it's built from rootsier materials, but it's every bit as well-made, and his songs of working-class addiction ("King of Oklahoma"), the aftershocks of mental illness ("Death Wish"), the struggle of what to do in a world going off the rails ("Change the World"), and even the personal anguish of daily life ("Middle of the Morning" and "This Ain't It") are not the grandstanding of a well-meaning sloganeer, but the observations of a man who has labored hard not to remove himself from the world he writes about, regardless of his success. Part of the subtext of Isbell's work from Southeastern onward is gratitude that he's been given the chance to do better work as a healthier man, coupled with the responsibility not to waste his opportunities on trivial themes. Both of these ideas are present on Weathervanes, as is his ability and drive to make music worthy of his fans' high expectations. This LP is a triumph, an outstanding set of songs and performances from someone who has already proved they're one of the strongest, truest voices in American roots rock.

1 Death Wish 4:30
2 King of Oklahoma 5:02
3 Strawberry Woman 4:10
4 Middle of the Morning 4:40
5 Save the World 5:09
6 If You Insist 3:45
7 Cast Iron Skillet 3:24
8 When We Were Close 3:57
9 Volunteer 4:05
10 Vestavia Hills 4:31
11 White Beretta 3:56
12 This Ain't It 6:14
13 Miles 7:07