On Friday, May 15, Jason Isbell performed in Nashville at the Brooklyn Bowl, an improbable live performance, but one that marked a very special occasion for him and his band, the 400 Union. Indeed, in front of a skeleton audience consisting solely of vital sound design crewmembers, camera operators, and essential staff, Isbell (alongside his wife, Amanda Shires) launched into a seventy-five-minute live performance of his new album, Reunions.
The release show was the first live performance of the new album, which Isbell and his band released digitally on May 15th. While no more than a few claps could be heard between songs, make no mistake, Isbell’s performance could have filled an arena. According to Rolling Stone, over 100,000 unique viewers tuned into the livestream, and throughout the broadcast, Isbell and his team projected live video of fans at home watching and clapping along. One couple was watching on the anniversary of their wedding, another was watching with their newborn baby.
The concert was a very unique form of fan engagement: listeners could watch Isbell and Amanda Shires perform on stage and also see other fans who tuned into the show via Zoom. Thus, fans could get a sense of community that surpasses that of a typical concert livestream. But beyond the unique sense of community the show created, Isbell and Shires—who played the violin tremendously and provided lovely backing vocals for Isbell—put on a fantastic show. It is a performance certainly worth viewing if you didn’t have the chance to see it on Friday.
As for the album, Isbell and his band teamed up with renowned Nashville producer, Dave Cobb, to create a compelling ten-track record with some true stand-out songs you can expect to see nominated at the awards season in the coming year. For me, the first three songs on the album, “What’ve I Done To Help,” “Dreamsicle,” and “Only Children” were the most captivating cuts on the album, and “River,” “Overseas,” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” were also robust songs. “What’ve I Done to Help,” the opening song on the album, sets a fantastic tone for the record, and it comes across as perhaps the finest example of the harmony between Isbell, his band, and Dave Cobb. The song has incredible depth, with layers of acoustic guitar, electric guitar, gentle strings, mandolin, grouped vocals, electric bass, keys, and driving drums. It appears like it would have been a nightmare for any mixing engineer to deal with, yet somehow the complexity works. The song feels synchronous and the tone feels patient. So often songs like “What’ve I Done To Help” dissolve into a cacophony of noise when the intricacy of melodies and tempos expand and evolve, but “What’ve I Done To Help” builds and releases gently and flows organically like so many of Isbell’s more stripped back songs. Ultimately, the song is a true masterclass in production from Cobb, and a stirring opening song from Isbell and his band.
“Dreamsicle” is another example of a record that feels patient and perfectly weighted. This song is more lyrically driven than the debut track, and it showcases Isbell’s proclivity for thoughtful, contemplative lyrics. In it, Isbell sings from the perspective of a child moving from town to town with his mother. It features this hauntingly beautiful image in the first chorus, “A Dreamsicle on a summer night / in a folding lawn chair,” as Isbell describes a child preparing to pack up his things and move again. The title of the song, “Dreamsicle” is a lovely bit of metonymy from Isbell as he describes the fleeting dreams of a child wishing his father would come back but knowing that he won’t. Overall, “Dreamsicle” is a poignant song graced by the simple bliss of childhood. If it weren’t so warm melodically, the lyrics would tear you down.
Another one of my favorite songs on the album is “Only Children,” a great example of Isbell’s songwriting capabilities. In “Only Children,” Isbell explores a child’s experiences growing up and losing his childhood friend. For most of the song, Isbell recalls bittersweet moments from the speaker’s childhood. Isbell sings, “Remember when we used to meet? / At the bottom of Mobile Street / And do what the broken people do.” Indeed, a traumatic backstory ominously looms over the song as Isbell sings, “Remember when we took too much? / To get a little of the human touch / Hand to mouth and reel to reel,” as well as, “Are you still taking notes? / Hydrocodone in your backpack / Maybe these words will hold the beast back.” Throughout the song, Isbell relates this story of getting by—of doing whatever you can to try to keep moving and to pursue the dream of music. The line “hand to mouth and reel to reel” refers to the state of living for the protagonist—barely making enough to feed himself and making reel-to-reel demo tapes on a cassette player to try to give to labels. Overall, this is one of my favorite songs on the album. It isn’t just a recollection of tough times, but a tribute to the durability of character: namely, the spirit of the narrator’s departed friend.
Reunions offers a lot for the listener to enjoy. I think it’s a great offering from Isbell and his band, and the first half of the album is fantastic. There are some interesting songs towards the end of the record as well: one such record is “It Gets Easier” in which Isbell addresses sobriety, concluding that “it gets easier but it never gets easy” after years of sobriety. And “St. Peter’s Autograph,” in which Isbell examines the difficulty of helping someone who is struggling after a dear friend of theirs commits suicide. The record can be somber at times, but Isbell and his band feel confident and resolute across the ten tracks. The album is a strong showing from the band, and we will be looking forward to all that is to come from Isbell in the near future.
Written by Brennan White