(Photo: David McClister)

Like the spectacular Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s follow-up, Something More Than Free, is an album about roots and identity, about the struggles that define a person. But now, instead of darkness or pain, Isbell doesn’t have to look hard to find the small, everyday rewarding aspects of life.

While Southeastern dealt with Isbell’s own challenges, specifically his turn toward sobriety, this new album broadens his songwriting focus. Like Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, and James McMurtry, Isbell writes about blue-collar lives that may not currently be his own, but his lyrics shine with the authenticity of firsthand observation. Isbell succeeded so spectacularly with the vulnerable, confessional songs on Southeastern that it’s almost a shame he moves in a new direction here, but he’s as sincere writing about the world that exists just outside his own self. A more varied record, this batch of songs is about family; friends; cautionary tales; and quiet, steady heroes.

The album opens with the jaunty country shuffle of “If It Takes A Lifetime,” with Isbell singing from the perspective of a man who’s seen the line between right and wrong become a blur, before making the adjustments to put his life back on track. It’s not Isbell himself—there’s a verse about working for the county—but the song carries the sort of optimism that’s a natural follow-up to Southeastern.

“Flagship” is a quiet and tender song about a couple that sees what they could become, worn out and indifferent, no longer lovers but two bodies who just drag each other down. “Baby let’s not ever get that way,” Isbell sings, knowing that it takes belief, focus, and unending fight to keep love’s flame burning. Next, “How To Forget” chronicles just one of the thousand ways that sort of young love can fracture, with the fallout still trailing behind like a comet’s tail.

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On “Children Of Children,” Isbell sings about the sacrifices of young parenthood, about seeing pictures of his mother at 17, small and young and carrying a baby on her hip. The end of the chorus, “All the years you took from her just by being born,” is punctuated by the sharp pop of a snare drum, like a door slamming on a life that could’ve been. The title song is about the peace that comes from an honest balance between work and the weekend, the drudgery and the release, the toil and celebration of life. Isbell’s point is that one can’t exist without the other, and while that’s the same essential truth that drove Southeastern, on “Something More Than Free” the evidence is bolstered by more than his own experience.

Southeastern producer Dave Cobb returns, guiding an album that in addition to ballads pushes into the Southern blues-rock (“Palmetto Rose”), urgent heartland rock (“24 Frames”), and guitar pyrotechnics (“To A Band That I Loved”). Isbell’s lyrics on Southeastern sharpened to a poignancy that he’d mostly hinted at before, and though Something More Than Free may not repeat Isbell’s album-of-the-year accolades, it continues the magic of that breakthrough LP.

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