Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
A Jason Isbell record always lands like a decoder ring in the ears and hearts of his audience, a soundtrack to his world and magically to theirs, too. Weathervanes carries the same revelatory power. This is a storyteller at the peak of his craft, observing his fellow wanderers, looking inside and trying to understand, reducing a universe to four minutes. He shrinks life small enough to name the fear and then strip it away, helping his listeners make sense of how two plus two stops equaling four once you reach a certain age -- and carry a certain amount of scars.
“There is something about boundaries on this record,” Isbell says. “As you mature, you still attempt to keep the ability to love somebody fully and completely while you’re growing into an adult and learning how to love yourself.”
Weathervanes is a collection of grown-up songs: Songs about adult love, about change, about the danger of nostalgia and the interrogation of myths, about cruelty and regret and redemption. Life and death songs played for and by grown ass people. Some will make you cry alone in your car and others will make you sing along with thousands of strangers in a big summer pavilion, united in the great miracle of being alive. The record features the rolling thunder of Isbell’s fearsome 400 Unit, who’ve earned a place in the rock ‘n’ roll cosmos alongside the greatest backing ensembles, as powerful and essential to the storytelling as The E Street Band or the Wailers.
They make a big noise, as Isbell puts it, and he feels so comfortable letting them be a main prism through which much of the world hears his art. He can be private but with them behind him he transforms, and there is a version of himself that can only exist in their presence. When he plays a solo show, he is in charge of the entire complicated juggle. On stage with the 400 Unit, he can be a guitar hero when he wants, and a conductor when he wants, and a smiling fan of the majesty of his bandmates when he wants to hang back and listen to the sound.
The roots of this record go back into the isolation of the pandemic and to Isbell’s recent time on the set as an actor on Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. There were guitars in his trailer and in his rented house and a lot of time to sit and think. The melancholy yet soaring track “King of Oklahoma” was written there. Isbell also watched the great director work, saw the relationship between a clear vision and its execution, and perhaps most important, saw how even someone as decorated as Scorsese sought out and used his co-workers’ opinions.
“It definitely helped when I got into the studio,” Isbell says. “I had this reinvigorated sense of collaboration. You can have an idea and you can execute it and not compromise -- and still listen to the other people in the room.
- Saturday, Jul 15 Vina Robles Amphitheatre, Paso Robles