In his six years rounding out the three-guitar attack of the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell wrote all of eight songs. Despite such limited output it came as a shock to fans everywhere when earlier this year Isbell up and left DBT, along with leaving the band's bassist, Shonna Tucker, his then-wife (the couple has since divorced). DBT was left without their most vivid songwriter, who, along with ragged frontman Patterson Hood, personified the hard-living, Southern-loving, blue-collar charm of the band.
Now on his lonesome and armed with a debut solo effort, Sirens of the Ditch, Isbell takes a long leisurely stroll from the reckless DBT legacy. Three years in the making, and co-produced by Hood, Sirens is what every solo debut album should be. Confident and assured, yet not too distant from his former band, Isbell plays his hand close to his chest, never letting on which material is autobiographical and which is another Dixie-spun work of fiction. Isbell, fresh off a 26-hour drive, talks about the change in songwriting, "It's another side to what I do. I probably write stories more often than not because I'm drawn to them, but I write all kinds of different songs."
The album's finest track, "Dress Blues," is a personal, if not inadvertently political, look at the harm caused in the wake of our country's wars. "There's a guy I went to high school with, his name was Matthew Connolly, and he wound up dying overseas in that conflict they don't call a war anymore." The song itself is a stunning look at how the small details of a death—especially when it's one that looms large as part of a greater, and often unspoken, issue—feel the most tragic.
Isbell sings, "You'd turn 22 and we'd celebrate you in a bar or a tent by the creek/Your baby would just about be here/Your very last tour would be up, but you won't be back/They're all dressing in black, drinking sweet tea in styrofoam cups." While anti-war songs are a staple in the post-American Idiot pop music world, they feel vapid and empty compared to the emotional weight of "Dress Blues."
"Obviously, I don't know what it's like from the soldier's view. But I do know what it's like from the point of view of people who are back home in a small town and are dealing with the loss of somebody who everybody in town knew."
The rest of Sirens is less dire, although the bluesy "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades," finds Isbell mercilessly drowning his sorrows in a whiskey river, where he confesses that, "I cried on her shoulder/All the things that I told her/Guess I didn't say enough about me."
If there is anything that can be said about Isbell, it's that the man is deliberate. From the handful of songs harvested from his stint in DBT, to a solo record gradually perfected over the years, the man takes his sweet time. Since the result of this is an album as beautiful as Sirens—a tribute to the benefits of quality over quantity (you hear that, Ryan Adams?)—the man can take as much time as he needs.
Jason Isbell plays Friday, August 3 at Music Millennium NW (6 pm) and Dante's (9:30 pm).