Jason Isbell: Feeling Free

The songwriter’s new album soars

Jason Isbell isn’t concerned with pressure. The singer-songwriter’s acclaimed 2013 album, Southeastern, raised his profile substantially, teeing up huge expectations for his next effort. He delivers with Something More Than Free. “I know people with real problems, and following up something that’s successful is not a problem,” he says. “I ignored the pressure. It doesn’t do you any good.”

Southeastern was written shortly after Isbell had gotten sober after many years of hard living. The album is a raw, gritty snapshot of that difficult time, whereas Something More Than Free feels more like a celebration, lusher and more patient. “I’m a happier person now,” he says. “I’m not still adjusting. When I wrote Southeastern, I was trying to figure out who to be, but now I’m more comfortable in the world.”

Recorded in Nashville with Isbell’s backing band the 400 Unit, Something contains some of the prettiest songs he’s written: the gorgeous “If It Takes a Lifetime” and the mournful, cautionary tale of a dismantled relationship “Flagship,” while the swirling, string-heavy “Children of Children” ends with an epic guitar solo that soars like a comet. Each song is chock-full of sharp lyrics, wry observations, and effortless turns of phrase, solidifying Isbell as one of today’s most gifted songwriters.

Isbell says the album title is symbolic of the trade-offs that come with age and maturity. Freedom is a means to an end, and if it isn’t, then what’s the point? It’s certainly something Isbell has been contemplating as he and his wife, Amanda Shires, are expecting their first child—a girl—in September. “What are we giving up, watching movies on Friday and Saturday nights?” he says with only a hint of anxiety at becoming a father. “An incredible number of people have raised children who aren’t too screwed up. Surely, I won’t be the worst at it.”