JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT
ATTENTION IS IMPORTANT, AND MANAGEABLE, and many well-intentioned artists – and journalists and social media commentators – do that. Care and focus is brought to situations and conditions, support is expressed, action is demanded. There is nothing wrong with that; the alternative, as we have seen with governments of conservative hues and raw meat-chewing media acting as both attack weapons and mouthpieces for those governments, is ugly and destructive.
However, attention is the relatively easy path, fuelled by an anger or righteousness that can work at one step remove. It is compassion that takes real work. And by that I don’t mean blanket acceptance or automatic forgiveness, which is in its own way easy to do, but understanding and a degree of mercy balanced by an element of rigour in the standards you demand of yourself and others.
Compassion lies at the heart of Jason Isbell’s work, as someone who is working to stay on the other side of addiction but not a prude, a husband second time around and a father, an entrenched Southern man but a progressive, a songwriter of the personal and an activist, a leader but always a bandmate, an unfinished article in an extremely imperfect world.
As he has sung before, it gets easier, but it never gets easy, and Weathervanes never skirts quandaries or quagmires, preferring instead to immerse us in them and letting us understand. This happens from the very start, in Death Wish, which addresses the way depression cripples the ability to function but just as much the ability to think past, told from the perspective of a friend.
“Did you ever love a woman with a death wish?/Something in her eyes, like flipping off a light switch,” he sings, the song straight into the chorus that sketches out a pattern of behaviour creating a sense of inevitability, but ends with the line, “I don’t wanna to fight with you baby, but I won’t leave you alone.” The patterns of behaviour, the question of “what’s the difference in a breakdown and a breakthrough?”, the knowledge that this is not a bluff, are delivered with neither straightforward resignation nor misguided optimism, just care. The song ends with a repetition of “I wanna hold her until it’s over.”
By contrast, White Beretta is about a time when someone wasn’t around to hold until it was over: a man looking back at when he let his equally young girlfriend go through with the final stages of an abortion alone. Here the small details do as much lifting as anything else, when forgiveness is not sought, though it might be earned, but understanding comes around.
A religious upbringing where “I was washed in the blood/And we were all saved before we even left home”, contrasts the idea of supposed celestial unconditional love with the thought “Why do I feel so miserable?/Why are you digging your nails into the Styrofoam?”. The man “sitting at a red light, listening to Son Volt [singing] ‘May the wind take your troubles away’,” acknowledging the twin truths that “I could have been somebody’s father, couldn’t boil a pot of water/I was 19 years old in 1998”.
As with earlier albums, on Weathervanes there are songs about fatherhood (now and into the uncontrollable future, as in Miles) and manhood (the misguided, crumbling central character of King Of Oklahoma), and songs that touch on failures in both (the explosion of race and pride and pain in Cast Iron Skillet). Then you’ll hear about the people who show you the path away from repeating those mistakes (Strawberry Woman).
But there are also songs about his ragged and sometimes inadequate response to lockdown (Middle Of The Morning) and strangers stumbling into or just past a connection (If You Insist), of how surviving fractured childhoods doesn’t necessarily mean you want to keep fighting for everything good (Volunteer), and how surviving a country making killing easier makes fighting for what’s close crucial (Save The World).
And in all of them Isbell brings concern and frankness, close observation and a broader picture, change that’s necessary and expectation within reach, unflinching self-knowledge and forgiveness. The hard stuff. Compassion.