Reunions – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Someone posted a ‘funny’ clipping on Twitter this morning about a town in California declaring itself a ‘sanctuary city’ for businesses and flagging its intention to defy the statewide lockdown rules. (For future historians puzzling over this fragment, there was a viral pandemic in 2020, and the United States, led by sociopaths, had the highest death count in the world.) The quote from the article highlighted included the following:

“It’s not the government’s job to protect my health, it’s their job to protect my rights, and they’re being taken away, so thank you for giving them back to us,” Ron Danel, who owns a company that makes gravestones, said to the City Council.

The Twitter post included only this comment: “respect the hustle”.

Future historians may wish to note that 2020 was also the year that musician Jason Isbell, backed by his band The 400 Unit, released his album Reunions. It hit the market in the 5th month of the global pandemic, which had killed by then about 313,000 people, 90,000 in the United States. Future historians may need to be informed that the United States of America was a short-lived (240-year) experiment in democracy.

On his 2013 album Southeastern Isbell has a song called “Elephant”, which is about a friend dying of cancer. 

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me

No one dies with dignity

The elephant in the room for this album is not so much President Donald Trump as the Trump Enabling Complex, the people and institutions surrounding him who have either done nothing to stop him or are actively plotting his success. Back when there wasn’t quite as much at stake, in 2017, there was some talk of invoking the US Constitution’s 25th Amendment, which allows for an unfit President to be removed from office. But even as this President suggested on live television that people might be able to inject disinfectant – or sunlight – to cure the virus, even as he expressed sympathy for armed terrorists in Michigan, there was no such talk. See, it’s never just the one guy. It’s the people around him who just do nothing.

Reunions kicks off with the six minute forty second “What’ve I Done to Help”, which sets the tone. Isbell agonises about the choice you have to make between looking after yourself and doing something to help others who are suffering.

Climb to safety, you and me and the baby

Send our thoughts and prayers to loved ones on the ground

And as the days went by we just stopped looking down, down, down

The world’s on fire and we just climb higher

‘Til we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and sound

Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher

Nothing given, nothing found

What’ve I done to help?

What’ve I done to help?

The theme is picked up again in “Be Afraid”, the first track pre-released from the album, in which Isbell, sounding like he’s singing from the bottom* of a bottomless pit, castigates himself and other performers for not speaking out.

And if your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice

To sing a cover when you need a battle cry

The title takes its cue from Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers,a self-help book that came out in 1987. Isbell’s voice is buried in a swirling swamp of throbbing power chords, and he sounds like a drowning man.

I should say, I’ve not heard an album that sounded so different in so many different listening situations. Using headphones, or on my crappy laptop speakers, his voice often sounds distant, buried deep in the mix, like George Harrison’s on “Old Brown Shoe”. But stick the album on a decent set of speakers and it rings out clearer. In other words, we are being asked to play this album loud.

At times, the record gives off a Dire Straits vibe, whether in terms of Isbell’s gruff vocals or his precise and intricate guitar parts. Your hand creeps to the volume control and pumps it up a little higher.

There are songs here about The Situation, not the pandemic itself but the shitshow we’ve all experienced since 2016, a candidate for the worst year in history, until this one. And then there are personal intimate songs about relationships. For example, there’s one about the complex of emotions when one partner in a relationship is grieving the loss of an old friend – or perhaps former lover (“St. Peter’s Autograph”). Then there’s a song sung by a man to his daughter (“Letting You Go”). Now, we know that Isbell has a daughter, but it would be wrong to see all of these songs as autobiographical. Like Springsteen, he writes character songs, putting himself into the shoes of people who are just passing through this album on the way to somewhere else. So this father is singing to a daughter who’s about to get married, and elsewhere when he sings about difficulties in relationships, I don’t think we’re supposed to imagine his own marriage in trouble.

And then there’s the anthemic “It Gets Easier”, which sounds like a Jason Isbell song about getting sober, demanding to be sung along with by the crowd in a sweaty music venue. But it doesn’t have to be about getting sober: the general sentiment here, that it (life) gets easier but it never gets easy, could be about all kinds of things. Of course Isbell speaks from experience here, but he also knows how songs like these chime with his audience. And as you listen you can dare to imagine that one day there might be venues and sweaty crowds and fist pumping anthems again.

*Deal with it.

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