Seldom, if ever, does an album take two or three dozen spins around my record player before it hits the road to review. But this record, Jason Isbell’s fifth solo piece, is so good it’s dominated my turntable since the day it landed on my desk. The clarity of mind and deep sense of family values of which Isbell speaks in his excellent conversation with Kelly McCartney comes to musical fruition here on these 11 songs, beautifully articulate and confident observations of those everyday places where man makes connections between faith and fear, responsibility and desire, past and present.
The opening cut, "If It Takes a Lifetime," is just that: a narrative of a grown man who stays away from wine and beer (and keeps "pissin’ clear") in the name of his worldly responsibilities, always hopeful that “his day will come, if it takes a lifetime.” "24 Frames" and the exquisite "Children of Children" are epic journeys from a youthful point of view — the former drawing from the jangle rock of the South circa ‘85, the latter a beautifully expansive Midwestern chronicle of tall corn and light reins. "Flagship," a story of how we’d never like to be, and "Hudson Commodore," a story of how it's turned out, are stunning bookends around what might be the best five Americana songs of this decade. The best of them is "The Life You Choose," a nearly perfect narrative wherein a man who loses three fingers “to a faulty tool” considers himself to be the lucky one (and "nobody's fool").
Isbell’s voice on this album is lithe and graceful, tripping lightly across material both tough and tender. The arrangements — from the supporting vocals to the rhythm tracks to the deliciously subtle strings — are exceptional and the musicianship is top notch. But what makes this very best record I’ve heard all year — one that deserves those dozens of plays — is the stories, the talk of the temporal meeting the spiritual, and all the very human trips and stumbles that happen along the way. This is, for lack of ensuing competition, the best record of the year and worthy of consideration as one of the best of the decade.