Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Weathervanes
Release Date: June 9, 2023
A Jason Isbell record always lands like a decoder ring in the ears and hearts of his audience, a soundtrack to his world and magically to theirs, too. Weathervanes carries the same revelatory power.
This is a storyteller at the peak of his craft, observing his fellow wanderers, looking inside and trying to understand, reducing a universe to four minutes. He shrinks life small enough to name the fear and then strip it away, helping his listeners make sense of how two plus two stops equaling four once you reach a certain age - and carry a certain amount of scars. “There is something about boundaries on this record,” Isbell says. “As you mature, you still attempt to keep the ability to love somebody fully and completely while you’re growing into an adult and learning how to love yourself.”
Weathervanes is a collection of grown-up songs: Songs about adult love, about change, about the danger of nostalgia and the interrogation of myths, about cruelty and regret and redemption. Life and death songs played for and by grown ass people. Some will make you cry alone in your car and others will make you sing along with thousands of strangers in a big summer pavilion, united in the great miracle of being alive.
The record features the rolling thunder of Isbell’s fearsome 400 Unit, who’ve earned a place in the rock ‘n’ roll cosmos alongside the greatest backing ensembles, as powerful and essential to the storytelling as the E Street Band or the Wailers. They make a big noise, as Isbell puts it, and he feels so comfortable letting them be a main prism through which much of the world hears his art. He can be private but with them behind him he transforms, and there is a version of himself that can only exist in their presence. When he plays a solo show, he is in charge of the entire complicated juggle. On stage with the 400 Unit, he can be a guitar hero when he wants, and a conductor when he wants, and a smiling fan of the majesty of his bandmates when he wants to hang back and listen to the sound.
The roots of this record go back into the isolation of the pandemic and to Isbell’s recent time on the set as an actor on Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. There were guitars in his trailer and in his rented house and a lot of time to sit and think. The melancholy yet soaring track “King of Oklahoma” was written there. Isbell also watched the great director work, saw the relationship between a clear vision and its execution, and perhaps most important, saw how even someone as decorated as Scorsese sought out and used his co-workers’ opinions. “It definitely helped when I got into the studio,” Isbell says. “I had this reinvigorated sense of collaboration. You can have an idea and you can execute it and not compromise - and still listen to the other people in the room.”
The first of five focus tracks from the album, “Death Wish,” is about being in love with someone suffering from depression, with a powerful universal undercurrent about the fragility of life and the power and limits of love. That grown-up kind of love. Musically the track is beautiful and fascinating. Isbell, clearly, has been listening to the Cure and tiny little tracers of post-punk find their way into this song and others. Matt Pence, the drummer and engineer, came into the studio to help with the drum sound. He got a bunch of kits set up and they arrived on structure for “Death Wish.” The kick drum hits on the two, which was weird and disconcerting, even upsetting, until it clicked. Now it feels complicated and intricate, yet never fragile, like the subject of the song itself. As the first track it announces that Isbell is an artist growing, exploring new musical frontiers. The Sylvia Massy-added strings make it big and ambitious, almost like a James Bond theme song.
“Middle of the Morning" was a lockdown song. Melancholy, honest, with those Isbell phrases that will sneak into your vocabulary – ahem, “farmhand’s ghost” – the narrator, who both is and is not Jason himself, describes the feeling of being stuck in place, wheels and mind spinning, feeling like some essential part of yourself lives just outside your reach. “It was about trying to keep my mind from unraveling over the couple of years there,” he says now.
In “Cast Iron Skillet,” which will be sung by audiences and printed on merch for years to come, Isbell returns to a common theme. He is southern in accent, and family tree, and in musical ancestors, but he uses his art to tear down the worst of the south and try to build a new, better, more loving region in its place. The engine in this song is breaking open the myths and legends he learned, from the small and insignificant to the large and deadly. The characters are murderers and racists, human beings who weren’t always those things, and in between the lines is an author grappling with the forces of nurture and nature. “I think nostalgia is an abomination,” he says. “I think it is a crime. I think it’s unnatural.”
Isbell says “Save the World” was the hardest for him to write and record, going through several drafts and changing perspective. It is the hardest to listen to as well, describing the moment another school shooting hits the cable news ticker or the newspaper headlines. It’s not about a victim of the crime, or even anyone adjacent, merely worried parents trying to raise children in a world where something like this could happen. This is songwriting as journalism, very sophisticated journalism, and the music reflects the lyrics. There’s no reverb. No crutch. Everything feels bone dry, like the song is being played only for you.
“This Ain’t It” is a romp, with a live vocal take and live guitars except for the overdubs on the outro. This is the 400 Unit in a room playing, wings spread in flight, more southern sounding than anything Isbell has written in years. The spirit of Keith Richards is all over this track and the best part about the terrible fatherly advice being given here is that the father in the song, a totally untrustworthy narrator, really believes what he is saying.