My single biggest complaint about The Nashville Sound is that it’s too short. Or rather, I want more. Jason Isbell and his backing band the 400 Unit crafted an excellent follow-up to his equally outstanding album Something More Than Free, and I ungratefully wish for more Jason Isbell music because I haven’t get enough of this guy. Having purchased each of his studio albums, the only thing left is his live albums. And that won’t satisfy because, y’know, live isn’t new.
I don’t mean to make this into a pity party where I lament that this outstanding lyricist and musician isn’t pumping wonderful music eight days a week, but instead want to write about three songs from his new album that I’m enamored with. These aren’t necessarily the best tracks, but they’re the ones that resonated with something deep inside me.
To hell with pop songs that sprinkle in unrealistic platitudes. I can’t stop myself from rolling my eyes at any mention of “loving you forever” and similar trite phrases, which is why If We Were Vampires is so refreshing. Isbell is with his wife Amanda (who sings on this song) for the long haul, but knows that forever, well, isn’t. “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone,” Isbell croons. “Maybe we’ll get forty years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.“
The title of the song is taken from the first line of the second verse: “If we were vampires and death was a joke,” Isbell starts, “We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke / Laugh at all the lovers and their plans / I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.” With that last line, Isbell moves onto the song’s meaning.
“Maybe time running out is a gift / I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift / And give you every second I can find.” These three sentences makes the poignant chorus more than sad, shallow words. It’s a reminder. Find your special someone and love them until you can’t. That doesn’t stop Isbell from adding a somewhat selfish admission: “And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind“. Because who wants the reward of heartbreak and mourning after decades of hard work and sacrifice?
Here’s one I relate to on a personal level. “Anxiety / How do you always get the best of me? / I’m out here living in a fantasy / I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” Everyone has doubt and worry acting as little demons standing on your shoulders, whispering negative thoughts in your ears, but many people deal with these problems better than others, and I don’t count myself among those people. I have my issues, so I’m able to easily relate to lyrics like, “If I don’t move, I’ll come undone / My heart beats harder, a hammer striking steel.” Yep, that’s the beginning of a panic attack being sung.
The second verse speaks to the potentially strong impact of anxiety. “It’s the weight of the world / But it’s nothing at all,” obviously referring to anxiety’s non-physical nature, “Light as a prayer, and then I feel myself fall.” Given that Isbell is a first-time parent, it’s easy to read the last two lines — “I want to be strong and steady, always ready / Now, I feel so small, I feel so weak” — as the anxiety of being a new father.
Although Isbell notes that “I’m not always the person speaking in the songs,” it’s easy to imagine that his growing family has led to new worries. “Wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream / And oh, I’m a lucky man today / But so afraid that time will take it all from me.” This song isn’t directly focused on that, instead speaking to a wider audience with a larger pool of troubles, but it takes little imagination to theorize where the idea of this song came from, even if Isbell himself isn’t “wide awake and I’m in pain” as “my lover sleeping close to me.”
The chorus drew me into this song before I paid any attention to the verses. “I hope you find something to love / Something to do when you feel like giving up / A song to sing or a tale to tell.” Being a writer is often discouraging for a handful of reasons, so I grab hold of songs that provide a little encouragement whenever I can, and Something to Love provides that. The chorus is a little voice pushing me forward, a welcome respite from the more cynical voice that every writer has telling us that we’re not good enough. Yay, motivation!
Then I move onto the verses, which breaks from the inspiration as Isbell reflects on his childhood — “I grew up with all my family around / We made music on the porch on Sunday nights / Old men with old guitars smoking Winston Lights” — his wife — “The wind is cold the sky is dark and the ground is hard / But your momma loves to count the stars at night” — and his daughter — “You were born on a hot late summer day / We turned you loose and tried to stay out of your way.” He’s describing things he loves. His childhood gave him a love for music. His wife gave him a love for, well, her, and later his daughter. And it’s this child that he’s actually singing to.
Which doesn’t take away from the chorus. I still warms my fragile little ego to have a voice in my ears say go for what inspires you. Knowing that the audience in mind when Isbell wrote Something to Love is his daughter actually makes the song sweeter.