Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions (Southeastern Records) Album Review

Reviewed by Mae Hunt

Listening to Jason Isbell’s Reunions will inevitably leave you feeling nostalgic, but with an urge to rock out nonetheless. Backed by his band, the 400 Unit, the 10-track album mirrors Isbell’s own personal challenges while providing listeners with meticulously produced country rock music. Isbell has won four Grammys (out of four nominations!) and two UK Americana awards (out of two nominations!) – so the success of Reunions does not surprise me. Nonetheless, the Alabama singer has struck gold yet again on his seventh album. 

Let’s begin with the opening track: What’ve I Done to Help? Reflecting on our current political and social turmoil, Isbell engages in self reflection and questions his individual impact on society. The nearly seven minute song is guided by a heavy base and states: “Now the world’s on fire and we just climb higher, ’til we’re no longer bothered by smoke and sound. Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher.” This song sets the tone for the following tracks, most of which stems from self-reflection and the desire to contemplate past turmoils. 

For example, It Gets Easier is directly tied to Isbell’s own battle with alcoholism. In this song, Isbell wisely advises a fellow alcoholic that although it gets easier, it never becomes easy. In a profound verse, he sings: “Last night I dreamed that I’d been drinking. Same dream I have ’bout twice a week. I had one glass of wine, I woke up feeling fine, and that’s how I knew it was a dream.” 

Similarly, St. Peters Autograph was written for his spouse, Amanda Shires, when she was grieving the loss of a friend. This song, perhaps the most sentimental and emotional on the album, is a testament to not only Isbell’s prolific songwriting skills but his ability to pour his heart into his music. The softness of this song, Isbell’s tender voice, and the quiet instrumentals coalesce to create a truly moving piece of music.

In contrast to the intimacy of St. Peters Autograph, Overseas is a roaring rock song with bluesy undertones, combining guitar, fiddles, and synths. Also written in relation to his spouse, Amanda Shires, Isbell shares the devastation and heartbreak that comes with long-distance. Written at the time when Isbell and Shires (also a singer-songwriter) were touring separately, this is yet another powerful song that tugs on the heart-strings. 

Other songs I can’t neglect to mention include the crowd-favorite Dreamsicle, which details sad memories of childhood and left me feeling nostalgic, and Letting You Go, the album finale that follows Isbell’s determination to put his daughter’s needs before his own. The common theme strung throughout the album is perhaps Isbell’s ability to make his own personal experiences relatable, while invoking a strong sense of emotion in his listeners.

Finally, I will leave you with arguably the most nourishing and hopeful song on the album, River. In a metaphoric act, Isbell uses the river to wash away his sins, choosing forgiveness over anger. With piano in the background, Isbell sings: “River, here’s my secrets. Things I cannot tell a soul, like the children that I’ve orphaned and the fortune that I’ve stole.” It is almost baptismal, as though he comes clean after fully admitting his sins. This song is the crux of the album, as each track offers an honest look into Isbell’s life, the pain and the pleasure, with the ultimate goal of forgiveness and acceptance. It’s as though his lyrical transparency has set him free of his past, allowing him to walk confidently towards whatever his future has in store

Listen to and buy Reunions here.

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