Discussing the difference between art and entertainment with Trevor Noah on ‘The Daily Show,’ former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell shared his intentions for his music to fall within the former category. For Isbell, country – a genre which is tempting to apply to his music – serves as the backdrop for a tailgate whereas folk, his preferred label, persuades listeners to genuinely engage with the narrative work. On ‘The Nashville Sound,’ Isbell’s first release since 2011’s ‘Here We Rest’ to find The 400 Unit’s name billed alongside his own, the Alabaman songwriter realizes that ambition by delivering a captivating record with widespread appeal.
Blending poignant lyricism with bucolic grit, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit penetrate the heart on tracks like ‘If We Were Vampires’ and ‘Chaos and Clothes’ while displaying consciousness about social issues, such as expressing weariness with “The white man’s blues” on ‘Hope the High Road’, elsewhere. The political sentiments of ‘The Nashville Sound’ reach their zenith during ‘White Man’s World,’ where Isbell casually drops a Sartrean line in proclaiming, “There is no such thing as someone else’s war.” While this lyric is by no means astonishing in itself, it is refreshing to encounter from a genre that also produced the homophobic militarism of Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)’.
Musically, ‘The Nashville Sound’ is generally subdued, trading the punky Americana of Drive-By Truckers for gently rolling folk. Again, Isbell distinguishes himself from his contemporaries, whose over-processed, twangy pop music dominates the airwaves; however, the music here seems almost like an afterthought in relation to the lyrics. Indeed, the most glaring defect on ‘The Nashville Sound’ is that the album lacks a truly emphatic moment. Songs more often peter out, as though Isbell was uncertain how to punctuate their conclusions. Both ‘The Cumberland Gap,’ which touches upon the bleak opportunities in rural America, and the aforementioned ‘White Man’s World’ falter for this reason.
Regardless of this drawback, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit have undoubtedly produced an album that ought to captivate audiences regardless of their background. Moreover, ‘The Nashville Sound’ will perhaps serve as a blueprint for how American folk music can raise consciousness in moving beyond mere entertainment. Having debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 chart, only behind Lorde, 2 Chainz, and Kendrick Lamar, ‘The Nashville Sound’ proves to be both delightfully artistic and supremely accessible.
‘The Nashville Sound’ is out now via Southeastern Records.