Maybe only a recovering drunk can make sense of this mess of a country today.
Jason Isbell must be bored as hell of hearing his backstory (hard-living Drive-By Truckers alum turned conscientious, sober family man) rattled off like catechism in reviews like this. But though not all his songs are purely autobiographical, their insights feel rooted in experience: in a 12-stepper's awareness of how much dedication goes into the mundane piecework of living right, in a former hell-raiser's firsthand knowledge of the rationalizations men make after rejecting self-destruction becomes too much of an effort. As the 38-year-old Alabaman led his five-piece band the 400 Unit through a 19-song set that ranged clear past an hour and a half at the Palace Theatre Friday night, we repeatedly encountered two sorts of characters – strivers and fuck-ups – and were reminded of thin line between them.
Isbell’s set opened in an ominous key with the sturdy, lumbering riffs of “Anxiety,” the close intensity of the music mimicking the feel of the disorder itself. In two terse lines – “Why am I never where I'm supposed to be?” and “I can't enjoy a goddamn thing” – “Anxiety” says more about its subject than any 3000-word personal essay you care to share. It's from Isbell's brilliant new album, The Nashville Sound, as was the next song, “Hope the High Road,” which made explicit the obvious political reasons so many of us have been so anxious since last November, while taking a “they go low, we go high” stance. (Because in 2017 simply not being an asshole is an act of political courage.) That same awareness of current events brought a new resonance to “24 Frames,” from Isbell's 2015 album Something More Than Free, about how nerve-wracking it is to mend busted relationships through incremental effort while God lingers behind your plans like “a pipe bomb ready to blow.”
From there, it was on to Isbell's headline-grabbing acknowledgment of privilege, “White Man’s World.” “I'm a white man living in a white man's world” is a blunt, obvious statement perfect for an era where stating the obvious bluntly has become a daily necessity. “Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for,” Isbell instructs all his fellow pink-skinned penis-havers, particularly the ones who talk like him and hail from a land where a white man’s glance into a black man’s eyes reveals that “old times are not forgotten.” Our nation’s most powerful racist may be a product of Queens (like Archie Bunker before him) who got more votes from Chris Christie’s New Jersey than Jeff Sessions’ Alabama, but anti-bigotry still rings out louder in a southern drawl.
We were seven songs in – past all the above, past “Codeine” (boy gets wasted, boy loses girl), “Molotov” (boy gets sober, boy finds another girl), and “Something More Than Free” (boy gets a job, boy finds meaning in something besides girls) – before Isbell spoke at length. In the midst of introducing drummer Chad Gamble, he joked that his bandmate looked good, then digressed into a brief study of vocal intonation. “When you tell someone they look good, the higher your voice is the less they’re going to believe you,” Isbell observed, contrasting an upwardly pitched “you look good” with a firmer baritone declaration. Isbell also had some kind words for the Turf Club, calling it “one of the first places that treated us like a real rock ‘n’ roll band,” and boasting that his wife, Amanda Shires – also the 400 Unit's fiddle player – had sold it out (and would likely return there later this year).
On “The Life You Chose,” Isbell sang about running across a lover from your old life and hoping she's as desperate as you are; on “Last of My Kind,” he revitalized an over-familiar species of song – country boy gripes about life in the city – with smart detail: his urban neighbors have no rhythm, his college buddies cruelly dosed him with speed, the Arkansas farm he left is now a Wal-Mart parking lot. “Chaos and Clothes” offered wise advice to a heartbroken buddy who happens to be booked at the Palace later this month. And then came two songs of expertly depicted delusion: On “Cumberland Gap,” a miner’s son blames his alcoholism on how his ambition's been thwarted by a town “nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores,” and the narrator on “Tupelo” thinks he'll leave his problems behind when he moves to a new town.
Isbell next made room for mini-set of three songs from his 2013 album Southeastern: “Flying Over Water,” “Stockholm,” and “Cover Me Up,” which was written about Shires. “It's extra-special when I get to sing the song for her, to her, and with her,” he said, introducing a doting rendition that got a big cheer when he got to the line that mentioned his sobriety.
Finally, we got the showdown between the striver and the fuck-up in two very different songs. “I keep on showing up / Hellbent on growin' up,” declares the sober working man on the plucky, genuinely inspiring “If It Takes a Lifetime.” “There ain't much difference in the man I wanna be and the man I really am,” snarls the backwoods drug dealer from the brutally rocking Drive-By Truckers’ set-closer “Never Gonna Change.” On the latter, Isbell, whose solos, with or without slide, had been brilliant yet economical throughout the night, got to cut loose, dueling with guitarist Sadler Vaden before a brief but brutal drum solo ended the bout. Hearing a proud chorus of “We ain't never gonna change” over vicious southern rock set Isbell's other one-day-a-time lyrics in perspective and highlighted the intractability of tradition and the tangled roots of his music's power.
For an encore, Isbell and Shires harmonized on “If We Were Vampires,” which frets that one lover will die before the other, then finds solace in the idea that this inevitable end makes love sweeter in the moment. This delicate moment led into a ten-minute rip through the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” that earned just about every note and every second. Jason Isbell is such a hot-shit guitarist he makes it all look easy onstage, and he's such an honest songwriter he never ignores how hard it is to live offstage.
Critic’s bias: Longtime Isbell fans swear by the worthy Southeastern – after the show, one even told me he thought the singer seemed visibly more invested in that album's songs than in his new ones. That's not what I saw or heard, but then again, I think Isbell's already astute songwriting has only sharpened on his past two albums, and that the move from acoustic strum to straightforward rock has helped focus his lyrics.
The crowd: Younger than I expected. In fact, maybe too young in some cases to know “Whipping Post,” which I'm guessing isn't the classic-rock staple it was two decades back. With that in mind, I'll share this bit of trivia: Before “Freebird” became the loudmouth idiot’s joke request, it was “Whipping Post.” Try it some time when you're in a retro mood. (No, don’t do that. Everybody hates that guy.)
Hope the High Road
White Man’s World
Something More Than Free
The Life You Chose
Last of My Kind
Chaos and Clothes
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up
If It Takes a Lifetime
Never Gonna Change
If We Were Vampires
A note on the openers: I'd never seen the Mountain Goats in this big a room before, and John Darnielle's crew expanded their sound fittingly, especially on the songs from their latest, Goths. Jon Wurster's deliberate mallet-thumping brought additional drama to “Rain in Soho,” an elegy for the '80s London nightclub the Batcave; the pumped up rhythms of “Andrew Eldrich is Moving Back to Leeds” verged on carnivalesque first-wave ska, lending a not-unkind irony to its telling of the Sisters of Mercy founder's backstory; and Darnielle's declamatory vocals cut through “Shelved,” about a proud has-been who rejects an opening slot for Trent Reznor while considering a new career coding for Lucasarts.
Goths, an album about just what its title says, is a conceptual sequel to the Mountain Goats' last album Beat the Champ, which focused on wrestling. On each album, Darnielle uncovers vulnerable human detail in subcultures based on elaborate fantasies of power without being sentimental or condescending, examining the daily routines of the people who act out (and share) those fantasies and receive more physical strain than financial reward for their efforts.
While dodging requests (“We haven’t played that song in seven years, friend,” Darnielle breezily responded to one shout, “and that trend will continue”) the Mountain Goats also fit in some older stuff that was good to hear. Still, as much as I love set-closer “This Year,” I'm looking forward to a time when its chorus – “I will make it through this year if it kills me” – seems at least a smidgen less applicable.
Mountain Goats setlist
Rain in Soho
Andrew Eldrich Is Moving Back to Leeds
In the Craters on the Moon
Cry for Judas
Damn These Vampires
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Up the Wolves