Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Weathervanes review | Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit get political

★★★★☆
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit show that country music can be as politically direct as any genre on their latest album, Weathervanes.

★★★★☆


Whilst politics and music in general may be comfortable bedfellows, politics and country music are less so. For decades the genre has considered itself politically blind, though it’s perhaps better described as selectively politically colourblind – red being the frequently unsurprising exception to the rule. Not so for Jason Isbell.

As one of the more outspoken artists operating in the genre (see: his decision to donate royalties to the NAACP after his track ‘Cover Me Up’ re-exploded courtesy of a cover by Morgan Wallen, who was then caught using racial slurs), we can take a very good guess at where his politics lie on most issues.

But his career-long dedication to introspection and the people at the heart of his stories have earned him the reputation as the wielder, not of an angry-pointed finger, but more of a blunt scalpel and a sharp pen; usually operating on himself, occasionally on others, though less likely to slice you open to fix you than he is to simply show you what’s inside.

Weathervanes

On astonishing new album Weathervanes he won’t find many new fans in the “shut up and sing” brigade, but the topics he covers, coupled with his minimal alienation of the politically curious in the context of America’s bitter culture wars, makes this album a spectacular feat from a tremendous storyteller.

Take ‘Save The World’, for instance, a look at the collective emotional impact of school shootings, with its blistering reference to the Uvalde shooting, as it beckons, “When you said the cops just let ‘em die I heard the shaking in your voice.” Wherever his listeners may fall on the issue of gun control, it would take a hard person not to at least recognise the primitive fears Isbell describes as he sings of “popping into the grocery store, my heart jumping in my chest / I look around to find the exit door, which way out of here’s best” and pleads with his wife to let them keep his daughter at home, out of harm’s way.

Then there’s ‘White Beretta’, which deals with the guilt he feels over not supporting a girlfriend through an abortion in the way he should have. It’s a usually unspeakable issue in country music, but Jason finesses the topic into a tale of youth, clenched fingers and shame. ‘King of Oklahoma’ lingers in the shadow of the opioid crisis, whilst ‘Cast Iron Skillet’ tells the sad stories of a murderer who dies in prison, and the impact of an interracial relationship on family bonds.

If you like your politics served cold, or not at all, then it helps that this album still sounds so good. With the help of the 400 Unit, this hour-long record veers from the influence of ‘90s guitar singalongs, to laid-back 60s and 70s wooziness, all ending in album closers ‘This Ain’t It’ and ‘Miles’, at six and seven minutes long, respectively. They say a week is a long time in politics. With Jason Isbell, an hour feels like it’s simply not long enough.


1 Comment

  • bonnyholder9249 says:

    This is an excellent review. The more I play it, the more it all sinks in. Jason’s voice is at the top of its power, and so is the 400 Unit. And his songwriting is stunning.

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