Don’t call it a comeback. Jason Isbell has been the King of Americana ever since he released his album Southeastern 10 years ago this week. But the problem with minting your magum opus is that you spend the rest of your career chasing that high water mark, and being compared to it over and over by ever-present naysayers.
Nothing will ever be good enough when it’s measured against perfection. And with the way Jason Isbell’s political persuasions have ruffled feathers over the years, whatever he releases will be lambasted by that snarling set, just like whatever he sings will be unnecessarily praised by others. But with his new album Weathervanes with the 400 Unit, Jason Isbell finally comes close to fulfilling the expectation he set after Southeastern. That is because Weathervanes nears perfection as well.
Producing the album himself, Weathervanes not only sees a return to top form for Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it also sees a well-needed freshening of the approach to how those songs are rendered in recorded form—whether it’s adding a little harmonica to the mix like he does on “Strawberry Woman,” or the strings on “Volunteer,” or allowing the 400 Unit to stretch their legs on “This Ain’t It.”
There is a renewed invigoration, and a willingness to explore the studio space that just wasn’t happening in Jason Isbell’s Dave Cobb-produced era, which started with Southeastern. Hey, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But sometimes even the best teams need a change at coach or quarterback to revitalize the original magic. In this case, it was Jason Isbell himself to step up in that leadership position, and he deserves accolades for his efforts in this capacity just as much as he does singer, songwriter, and guitar player.
Weathervanes really impresses you at virtually every turn. Though the opening song “Death Wish” feels a little much, and the final song “Miles” struggles to make it’s point, everything in between is evidentiary of why Jason Isbell is regularly praised as the preeminent songwriter of the era. Due to heavy rock songs bookending this album, some have assigned Weathervanes the distinction of being Isbell’s big rock breakout. But that feels off. The instrumentation and arrangement is imaginative and diverse—fitting perfectly in the always-nebulous “Americana” field. But the folk and country elements are there too.
What also is deduced by a strong listen through Weathervanes is how disappointing Isbell’s previous album Reunions really was, along with some of the other moments of his albums since Southeastern. It wasn’t as if anything specifically was wrong. It just didn’t feel exactly right. He was riding the momentum and good graces of a landmark album. With Weathervanes, Jason Isbell has bought himself another 10 years of being considered a top shelf songwriter, if nothing else.
With how stellar these tracks are, instead of trying to share thoughts in narrative form, let’s take it song by song from here. But make no mistake, the songs of Weathervanes all add up to an album that like all of Isbell’s others, will be applauded as a landmark of the year. In this case though, Weathervanes actually deserves it.
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This is perhaps the worst song on the album, and it doesn’t do the album any favors as the lead single and first track. The song works better in the context of the album though, since it speaks to the unsettled mind that is a recurring theme throughout Weathervanes. “Death Wish” is also most responsible for some fans and critics falsely claiming this album as Isbell’s official foray into rock, when he’s always been more rock than country.
“King of Oklahoma”
A perfect example of Jason Isbell’s character study and storytelling when he’s at the top of his game, and a taste of vintage Isbell, if you will. The half time shift in the chorus drives home the emotion of this song, and the fiddle compliments the rootsy nature of the setting. “King of Oklahoma” is certainly in contention for the best song on the album, and one of Isbell’s best ever.
A great folk country track that counters the characterization of Weathervanes as a rock record, with the little details in the writing elevating the song beyond a simple love story. “There’s a young man crying in a cowboy hat. She’s got square toed boots so he ain’t for real.”
“Middle of the Morning”
This feels like a quintessential pandemic/lockdown track. The rather reserved production shies away from the snare drum, and features the wisps of a theremin/saw to create contrast with the decidedly unsettled perspective of the speaker. The song astutely captures the raging uneasiness of the restless and isolated.
“Save The World”
This is what Jason Isbell should be doing when it comes to social commentary—broaching divisive subjects through exploring the shared fear, uneasiness, and frustration we all feel from school shootings without devolving into trite platitudes to pandering to constituencies. Some will still say Isbell is being opportunistic here. But like all great artists, he’s reflecting and speaking to the troubles of our time. The music itself finds a space somewhere between a prog rock anthem, and the soundtrack of a Castlevania game cartridge. Over time, the track settles into the brain as mostly appealing, but the power of the message is the deeper point.
“If You Insist”
Similar to “Strawberry Woman,” this track is important to make sure the weighty moments of the record contrast with lighter fare that still has messages to unravel, and stories to get lost in. A recurring theme of Weathervanes is the intelligence of the instrument and drum selections, which in this case manifests as brushes on snare to make sure the melodic bliss of this song is not impinged upon. Drummer Chad Gamble deserves a lot of credit for how this album turned out. Listening to “If You Insist” is like riding on a wave of warm water that never white caps or crashes.
“Cast Iron Skillet”
The mix of simple country wisdom with a progressive story speaks to the command and confidence that Isbell brought to the writing of Weathervanes, which draws its name from this song. Definitely a standout from the album and one of its early singles, it was one of the first signs that Isbell had returned to his top songwriting and storytelling form. “Cast Iron Skillet” does beg the question though, is interracial marriage really the hot button cultural issue it once was? It sure doesn’t feel like it, at least on the same level as school shootings. Despite the signaling to constituents, the songwriting of “Cast Iron Skillet” endures any tough scrutiny.
“When We Were Close”
This song is about Justin Townes Earle who Jason Isbell was close friends with, but grew apart from before his passing in 2020. “When We Were Close” is part biography, part tribute, with just a little bit of survivor’s guilt thrown in as well, imbuing the song with emotion and sincerity. Again, it’s the little details that allow the listener to delve deep into the story, like busting a B-string and finishing the set without it. It may have been a bit more meaningful if this took a more folky tone to fit with Justin Townes Earle’s legacy as opposed to the punchy rock song it became. But the energy drives home the emotion behind the song.
This song seems to take parts of Isbell’s own life story and intertwine them with more fictional narratives, perhaps in an alternative reality. Jason gives something for the audience to unravel here and the writing is strong, though “Volunteer” feels like one of the album’s few elective tracks.
“Vestavia Hills” is an enveloping waltz reminiscent of American Aquarium’s “Lonely Ain’t Easy” from their album Burn. Flicker. Die that was produced by Jason Isbell. Vestavia Hills is an affluent suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, and this song seems to be about a prodigy musician who gets too full of themselves and begins to burn out.
From a writing standpoint, this might be the weakest track on the album, despite Jason Isbell’s effort. Though it’s not easy to discern at all, “White Beretta” appears to be about a beau who once paid for an abortion reflecting back 25 years, and feeling bad that he wasn’t more supportive of the woman. The premise feels like a stretch to broach a hot button cultural issue, and Isbell throws in some religious guilt for good measure. You understand what Isbell is trying to get at, and due to the subject matter critics will praise it to the hilt (if/when they figure out what it’s about). But compared to the rest of Weathervanes, ‘White Beretta” feels a little forced, including naming the song after a car, which is a bit of a stock move from a songwriting standpoint.
“This Ain’t It”
Just when you start to tell yourself that Jason Isbell’s skills as a guitar player and the similar skill set of 2nd guitarist Sadler Vaden are going under-utilized, they turn in in this six-minute Southern rock anthem that gives Weathervanes some guts, sweat, and blue collar bluster that wasn’t just missing from this song cycle, but from Isbell’s career entirely. Remember, he started out as a lead guitarist for the Drive-By Truckers. Only later was it discovered Isbell could write a song.
As much as “This Ain’t It” feels like a home run, “Miles” feels a little bit lost, or like two or three songs smashed together that in the end, don’t really meld properly. At the beginning, the song seems to be the story of people growing apart, with the 2nd half mourning how a teenager has grown away from the parent that once used to be so close. The song then abruptly transitions to more of an anthemic barking of ideas, and then transitions once again into a sort of a David Bowie-sounding sequence. There are interesting elements to this seven-minute movement that may be worth salvaging or exploring, but it struggles to make it’s ultimate point. It also might be a song that reveals itself to be better over time.