Traditional country fans have plenty to be excited about in Jason Isbell‘s fifth studio album, Something More Than Free. It’s a squeaky clean polished product that you can bring home to mom, a sweet project that’ll make your heart smile. But one that’s also boring as all hell like a soundtrack to a bad Lifetime movie. Isbell’s approach on the album is simple; play to his all-American boy image with narratives that hardly crack into anything outside the norm.
The instrumentation behind it is just as bland; schizophrenic even in its approach — sometimes country other times folk and blues. It reads as uncertain, and at 11 songs there’s not much that binds it together; merely a gathering of cliche statements — simple and safe snapshots that do little to rejuvenate country music. Something More Than Free is like the generic family picture that comes with a newly purchased frame, devoid of personality yet vaguely familiar.
Squeaky clean, hand churned and bound for every county fair in middle america. There’s nothing controversial about it, so jovial that if you close your eyes you could smell the hay. There is something endearing about it, but it only lasts for so long before you want to drag it through the dirt:
A sweet and solemn start; his mild voice, a slice of bass and some fresh acoustics. But then out of nowhere a smattering of modern rock appears taking over the flavor mercilessly like pouring a gallon of ranch over a simple salad. He’s rearing back looking to hit a home run at just his second at bat:
Scaled back effort with a solid writing touch, nothing terribly exciting but still complex in its simplicity. He’s got that All American voice, and when he’s not overdoing it it works. It allows his simple gestures to resonate like taking the time to court one woman and being happy with just that:
Rendering the overt country elements down and infusing it with some moonshine folk, a conscientious move that almost works. The build up is steady and as it reaches its crescendo the power of forgetting takes full flight. Despite his attempts to muck it up it still reads as ultra-refined:
As the album progresses a strong, human element arises. The foundation of the song is preachy (girls having children too young), which if done wrong can come across as a glorified public service announcement. But thanks to some savvy writing he avoids the pitfall letting the music speak for itself:
Isbell’s getting his country preacher on weaving into the song a moral fiber made of gold. The pristine sparkle — from the porcelain-like acoustics to the cotton white vocals — make for a special plea. But the overt nature of the message leaves you feeling like you just got done talking to big brother:
Some down home, country biscuits & gravy jammin’ that’ll keep the American flags and sparklers going for days. He’s laying it on real thick and derailing what he’s worked so hard to accomplish thus far. He’s going for the old blue collar home run, and while it works on some levels it fails on others:
Hokey reminiscing only goes so far, especially when the sound is as glossy as a daytime soap opera. The light strumming and easy going vocals make it seem genuine, but there’s an air of forced sentimentality that coats it with a thick lacquer of cheese. A little too scripted for its own good:
Soundtracking a quick getaway and leaving all his troubles behind. The foundation of it is firm with all the fundamentals of pop country firmly set in place including a decent stretch of instrumentation. But like other songs he cuts it short in favor of the easy, more affable style of country:
No album is complete without a shout out to the old digs. It’s got a country blues element to it that’s supposed to express a unique local style, but it sounds as packaged as the rest. A honey baked jam churned out by the dozen that speaks to industrialized cliches more than heartfelt expression:
An ode to a favorite band. It’s filled with contemporary elements blurring the line between folk, rock and country. It should have been his approach from the jump, and to end it this way is a slightly annoying gesture. Hardly a way to end what was pitched as a heartfelt production: