“Thought I was alone in the world,” Jason Isbell sings in the first lines of the swirling seven-minute prog-roots rocker “What’ve I Done to Help,” before adding, “until my memories gathered ’round me in the night.”
There’s a reason Isbell chose to open Reunions, his seventh album, with the image of someone up late alone, plagued and comforted by the past. In addition to being his most crisply produced, sleek recording yet, Isbell’s latest is also his most haunted and ruminative (the word “ghost’ appears no less than five times). As such, Reunions feels meaningfully, if subtly, removed from the trilogy of post-sobriety records the Nashville-via-North Alabama songwriter has written over the past decade.
Those LPs, 2013’s Southeastern, 2015’s Something More Than Free, and 2017’s The Nashville Sound, told a moving story about Isbell’s emergence as a husband, father, and voice of moral consciousness in the modern South. Reunions, his fourth effort with producer Dave Cobb, is the songwriter’s first collection that feels like a response to, and perhaps even a gentle tinkering with, that very image.
Sometimes Isbell does that by tweaking his sonic palette (less country soul, more Dire Straits guitar tones); sometimes he does that by showing cracks in the facade (see the second verse of the Seventies-rock gem “Overseas”); sometimes he does it by reducing sobriety from the poignant literary metaphor it once was on Southeastern to a mere daily reality (“It Gets Easier”); sometimes he does it by showing that there’s zero difference between the personal and the political after all (“Be Afraid”); and sometimes he does that by holding up a dark mirror at himself: “Now the world’s on fire,” he sings, “and we just climb higher.”
Most often, though, Isbell kicks up dust by looking backward, and Reunions is at its best when he’s doing just that. On two stunning highlights — the swirling Nashville-tuning pop of “Dreamsicle” and the delicate ballad “Only Children” — the singer reflects on childhood memories, lost friends, and foregone bohemia.
Isbell has amassed several such masterpieces over the past decade alone (2013’s “Cover Me Up,” 2015’s “24 Frames,” 2017’s “If We Were Vampires,” to name a few). That level of songcraft has made his recent records the unintentional victims of his own high standards, where a collection of extremely good songs with a few slight misses (“St. Peter’s Autograph,” “Running With Our Eyes Closed”) can somehow feel, however unfairly, like it merely meets expectations.
Even so, Reunions is a nuanced, probing record that finds Isbell more restless than he’s been since Southeastern, a rich portrait of an artist eternally searching deeper within himself. “You tell the truth enough,” as he puts it on “Be Afraid,” “you find it rhymes with everything.”