“There’s no such thing as someone else’s war,” sings Jason Isbell on “White Man’s World,” a track from his forthcoming studio album The Nashville Sound, due for release on June 16. “Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for / Still breathing, it’s not too late / We’re all carrying one big burden / Sharing one fate.”
Compare that to this line from his debut album, Sirens of the Ditch, released nearly a decade ago: “What did they say when they shipped you away / To fight in somebody’s Hollywood war?”
While the new track — and the entire album — is heavy on the recent weight of fatherhood and the world that Isbell will eventually leave behind for his daughter, the contrast in this 2017 lyric and the one from his debut shows a man who grew in spite of a culture that didn’t want to allow it.
It’s a man who realized that it’s okay to change his mind, who acknowledges that maybe white men who grew up in rural America weren’t always right about everything, and that maybe they can continue to learn. And he says it with subtlety that may only be speaking to a few people.
The two hardest rock songs from the album, “Hope the High Road” and “Cumberland Gap,” have already been released as singles. Along with “White Man’s World,” they’re the songs that will most likely be perceived as “political” — but unlike his former colleagues in Drive-By Truckers, he manages to navigate politics with tact. That band’s Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have never been concerned with upsetting anyone, demonstrated on 2016’s American Band, but Isbell’s approach is empathy. It’s never that Isbell isn’t making sure that you know how he feels, but he manages to make it clear that he understands where everyone else is coming from — because he came from there once, too.
“Anxiety” is the fourth driving rock song, and while it will certainly turn into a song that showcases his rock and roll band in the live set, the rock really wraps itself around what is almost an entirely different song, lyrically, in the middle.
The best songwriting here — the track that will likely collect Americana Music Association awards and Grammys — is “If We Were Vampires.” I’ve seen words attached to that song like “heartbreaking” and “gut-wrenching,” and while those are things that Isbell certainly does well, that isn’t the spirit of the song. The track, which grapples with the notion that the narrator or their partner will outlive the other and leave loneliness behind, isn’t about impending emptiness; it’s about assured fidelity. It’s about feeling whole for the first time and savoring that. It’s the happiest song that he’s ever written, but it was written by a man who writes sad better than most of his peers.
The opening track, “Last of My Kind,” along with “Tupelo” and “Something to Love” are an extension of the direction of Something More Than Free. They’re Isbell writing about the South the way that he had written exclusively about Alabama for a decade prior. The former and latter (incidentally the first and final tracks on the record) feel tailored for the Grand Ole Opry stage, veering much closer to what passes for traditional country in 2017 than Americana or rock and roll.
There’s one delightful oddity here, “Chaos and Clothes,” which, along with an extremely rare B-side cover (from the eponymous record sessions) of “Everywhere With Helicopter” by Guided by Voices, is the grandest departure this band has ever recorded.
The Nashville Sound pushes the boundaries of what Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit have spent four years shaping “Americana” to be: a genre that Billboard first introduced to its weekly charts just over a year ago beneath the gaze of Isbell and contemporaries like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. And that’s what he set out to do. But much has been made over this record introducing — or more aptly, reintroducing — a harder rock sound. But it’s not that.
Through his three records with Drive-By Truckers and his first three with backing band the 400 Unit, Isbell wrote about a gothic South and painted vivid images of the places only Alabamians knew well. On 2013’s landmark Southeastern, we found him able to channel that energy into writing about sobriety and — more profoundly — assured fidelity. And here, we find him most effectively channeling that energy into writing about the uncertainty of the world that surrounds his daughter, which directly leads to unearthing his most remarkable writing skill yet: empathy.
Lee Bains III has ushered in something entirely new — not with his new album, Youth Detention (Nail My Feet Down to the Southside of Town), necessarily — but it’s something that’s evolved as he’s grown from his time with the Dexateens through his stint on Sub Pop and to his new home on Don Giovanni Records, a label that has also distributed the work of fellow Birmingham expat Waxahatchee.
It’s poetic punk.
There’s a lot of depth hidden beneath the crunch of that guitar — and this time, Bains has collaborated with Blake Williamson (who complements the work with illustrations) for a lyric book that’s part comic, part zine, part handbill. It’s really well done, a piece of art all its own.
And of course, Bains is also addressing issues. “Black and White Boys” isn’t really subtle, and “Crooked Letters” isn’t either, a lyric from the latter a certain reference to his hometown: “As our shined shoes clatter past, the bells boom off glassy cliffs / Drifting slowly down / Onto the purring suburban engines of dark-suited men / Who shall inherit downtown.”
The world that Bains wants to address isn’t directly tied to anything that happened in the 2016 election. No, Bains is much more concerned about class division, overcrowded prisons, what society criminalizes, and how it makes life more difficult for people that started from behind. But that was always the world that Bains wanted to address; this isn’t a “political” record by Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, but rather, a normal Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires record.
He’s lived in Atlanta for a few years now, but this record’s most profound moments are still rooted in the thing that Bains has always wanted most: a unified Birmingham. Lyrics from the track “The City Walls” are striking: “I don’t want to live in a tiny kingdom / I don’t want to live beyond the city walls / I don’t want to hide in my sin in a tiny kingdom / I don’t want to die beyond the city walls.”
Birmingham is complex. The lines between its affluent and poverty-stricken communities are razor-thin, and no one has ever been able to capture that the way that Bains has. There are a lot of reasons that Birmingham’s evolution over the past decade has forged rapidly forward, but Youth Detention (Nail My Feet Down to the Southside of Town) often serves as a love letter to a very specific community and scene that existed slightly before gentrification, and that made gentrification — for better or for worse — possible.
Bains was part of that community, unconfined by city walls. He was going downtown when older generations didn’t think that was okay. And while the green spaces and bike shares and walkability eventually made going downtown more inviting, the foundation would never have been poured on any of those condos if the punk rock community of the late ‘90s and early 2000s had not been the first to go back downtown. One by one, they experienced something and they went back to a tiny kingdom and told their parents how much it meant.
And we’re not there yet, but we’re much closer to “tearing down the city walls.”