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Collaborative Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell is a fascinating, thought-provoking songwriter, and this is exactly the type of album that should, and does, stir conversation and differing perspectives. It seems like every person I’ve talked to who’s listened to this and every review or opinion I’ve read has added something different to my own thoughts. So it seemed like the perfect record for Brianna and I to collaborate on and share our thoughts in conversational form.

Conversation

Megan: I think we have to start out by making the point that this really didn’t turn out to be a political record.
Brianna: I was pretty afraid it would be, given the title of “White Man’s World.”
Megan: “White Man’s World” is really about as political as it ever gets. I already talked about that song, but I think it was a great message and better coming from a white man. And I think it’ll be more effective on this album that really isn’t too political otherwise.
Brianna: I think that was more effective too, but I have to agree with Trigger from Saving Country Music–we should all stop labeling each other and just be people. But yes, the song was very well done, and I liked it. It was very intense musically, and I liked the theme. It’s a very political time, and he did well with that song and the message he expressed about privilege.
Megan: Yes, I think the “stop labeling each other” bit was sort of what Jason was going for with “Hope the High Road.” I know that’s one place we disagree here; you enjoyed that song, but I think it has some mixed signals. Like that’s the message, but then he has the line, “there can’t be more of them than us.”
Brianna: I do think that line complicates things. I like the energy of the song, though.
Megan: You said something to me the other day about this record that fascinated me, so I think you should share it, and that was that this is a very restless album. So please, elaborate on that.
Brianna: Well, you have songs like “Anxiety.” I think that one best shows it. He’s very emotional and unsure; he’s anxious. I just think that theme gets played out a lot over the album. I mean, he’s wondering if he’s the only one who feels empathy on “Last of my Kind.” He’s wondering how the world will be for his daughter once she’s grown. I think it’s all very emotionally restless.
Megan: Yes, I think you’re right. I’d also say that restlessness comes out in sound. You have folk and rock and country, and I think he called this The Nashville Sound for a reason, because it’s almost like it can’t settle on anything.
Brianna: I’d have to agree with you on that. I mean, of course I like that it’s quite varied, but it just fits in very well with the whole restless theme. Adding to all that the many influences in Nashville, and I think you may have something there with the name.
Megan: At first, I didn’t like the hard, rocking “Cumberland Gap” sandwiched between “Last of my Kind” and “Tupelo,” both softer, more acoustic songs, but after you pointed out the restlessness, I realized that’s what connects them. The characters in those first three songs are all unhappy in the world they’re living in, and the difference is just that the guy in “Cumberland Gap” explodes about it, lol. By the way, “Last of my Kind” is a killer song. It hit me hard in a personal way. One of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
Brianna: OH, now that’s a great point. It makes total sense now that you pointed it out. And I also loved “Last of my Kind.” There’s a moment where he talks about an old man being ignored by everyone but him–that moment was just so poignant.
Megan: What hit me most was that first verse, him not being happy in the city and people not dancing like him, all “clapping on the one and the three.” Actually, I just thought all the first five tracks were brilliant.
Brianna: I like that verse too, but something about the old man being ignored by everyone just got me. The first half is definitely the best for me too. After that, I start to have some issues. “Anxiety” is a really good song, and we’ve talked about how emotionally restless it is. I like that. However, the production is really messy, and it didn’t work for me. I also have pretty big issues with the production of “Chaos and clothes.” There are some layered vocals in that song that really distract me and keep me from digging deeper into the song. “Molotov” is one I’m still trying to figure out, and if you have any kind of insight into that one, I’m all ears.
Megan: “Chaos and Clothes” is awful. I don’t care how deep the lyrics are, or how artsy and cool it’s meant to be, that layering of the vocal track renders it unlistenable. Jason Isbell can make, or at least agree to, better production decisions than that. That’s what makes it even worse, he’s just better than that. “Anxiety” has really grown on me, and I do agree that he didn’t need the angry production behind him to help with the song. I’m struck enough by lines like “I’m out here living in a fantasy” and “I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing” on their own,” so the production takes it down a little. I feel like he was trying to be vulnerable, and it would have been better stripped back. I’m really enjoying “Molotov” after a few listens. Nice, nostalgic love song. It sort of pales in comparison to the genius that is “If we Were Vampires,” but it’s still a great song.
Brianna: Again, I completely agree with you about “Chaos and Clothes.” It’s weird and distracting, and it doesn’t sound great. I’m glad you figured “Molotov” out. Also, nothing will beat “If we Were Vampires” this year. I’ts impossible. I mean, it’s all about mortality, and the fact that because we have it, everything means so much more. I love that song.
Megan: It’s incredible. I think the closer will be a bit underrated, but “Something to Love” is a fine piece of writing too.
Brianna: OH, you have to appreciate “Something to Love.” From my perspective, it’s all about his daughter, and how he hopes she finds something that makes her happy despite the world’s darkness. I really like the song.
Megan: I agree, closes out the restless album with some hope. All in all, after some listens, strong 8 for me. The first half and the closer are stellar, with a couple of other good songs. It’s one of those rare times I actually wish the album had been longer, because on say, a 12-song project, this might be an 8.5 or even possibly a 9, but “Chaos and Clothes” and, for me, “Hope the High Road,” bring it down too much.
Brianna: I agree with you, I have to give it an 8 as well. I was thinking 7.5 at first–I know, unpopular opinion–but honestly? “If we Were Vampires,” “Last of my Kind,” and “White Man’s World” are fantastic. Add to that the fact that I really like all the rest aside from “Anxiety” and “Chaos and Clothes,” and I like 80% of the album…so 8 it is! I too think there was a bit too much filler and/or weird production choices to bring this album up to an 8.5 or 9. All in all, this is a solid album for me, but I still say Southeastern and Something More Than Free are better albums.
Megan: I like the songs of Southeastern, but it’s too dark for me as a fan. I love Something More Than Free, and I think this, in places, is stronger. That got a 9 from me here, and it was more consistent, but honestly, I’ll play this more. This is the Jason Isbell record I’ve connected to and enjoyed most overall.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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One thought on “Collaborative Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound”

  1. I’m surprised no one else has commented on this. I love the collaborative reviews, especially for this album.

    I think, overall, that this album isn’t quite as strong as his last two, but it’s still very good and has some of my favourite songs of his. I’ll probably come back to this album more than his others because of that, although not as often as I will some of the other great albums of this year (I think this is because, while I like this album and some of the songs are what I would consider country songs, I prefer a through-and-through country album to an Americana album).

    “Vampires” is easily one of the best songs of the year. It manages to be both sweet and sad at the same time, which isn’t easy to do.

    I also really enjoy “Someone to Love,” “Tupelo” and “Last of my Kind.”

    “Anxiety” is really interesting as that type of honesty about those types of struggles is still rare (not sure if it’s autobiographical or not) in the public realm.

    Politics mixed with music doesn’t really bother me so I found “White Man’s World” to be interesting as you don’t really hear that perspective in songs too often.

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