Robert Christgau on Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, and a Flood of New Country
The Dean of American Rock Critics tackles new albums from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Steve Earle.
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City. He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers) The Americana pigeonhole sets up rootsy expectations Isbell has too keen a mind for. And though he obviously isn't the only Nashville guy ever to placate his demons with Jack and coke or the only folkie ever beset by night thoughts, neither "country" or "singer-songwriter" suits him either—he's too intellectual for one, too downhome for the other. So 15 years after the Drive-Bys brought in a tenor who could write, 10 years after he quit them while his first wife stayed on, five years after he got sober, and two years after there was a baby on the way, here are some of the words his tenor lets fly. Over the tolling guitars of "White Man's World": "There's no such thing as someone else's war / Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for." Over the female counterpoint of "If We Were Vampires": "Maybe we'll get 40 years together / But one day I'll be gone, one day you'll be gone." Over the "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" boom of "Anxiety": "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." A
Steve Earle: So You Wannabe an Outlaw (Warner Bros.) He's tried the outlaw thing, and on his best album in 15 years sets out to tell the world why it ain't all that. Your buddies on those roughneck temp gigs always head elsewhere. When the news from home is bad, and it will be, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. Hitchhiking is so over a fella could write a keeper about it. And to sum up: "Everybody reckons that they want to be free / Nobody wants to be alone." A guy who's been married seven times is more likely to know nothing about women than everything. But from "Comes to love fallin' is the easy part" to "You can't pretend / The line between a secret and a lie ain't razor thin," he gets a keeper out of that too. While I surely do agree that in love a secret and a lie are the same thing, I hope it will interest him to be told that the secret of not being alone is to let yourself keep falling—for the same one. A MINUS
North Mississippi Allstars: Prayer for Peace (Songs of the South) Never much shakes with songs per se, they put their minds into an entreaty their South needs, their hearts into their South's African-American repertoire, and their guitars into Will Shade's greatest hit ("Prayer for Peace," "Stealin'") ***
Rodney Crowell: Close Ties (New West) 67-year-old proves he's still growing in wisdom, especially when he trots out the biographical fallacy ("Nashville 1972," "It Ain't Over Yet") ***
Gurf Morlix: The Soul and the Heal (Rootball) Bruised and bleedin' for strictly personal reasons, he heals by putting his all into humanist hymns ("Love Remains Unbroken," "Move Someone") **
Colvin & Earle: Colvin & Earle (Fantasy) On six cowrites and four sweet covers, Steve takes most of the starch out of Shawn, who retains enough to stiffen him up like he needs ("You Were on My Mind," "Happy and Free") **
Willie Nelson: God's Problem Child (Legacy) Having invented outlaw, he long ago elected to transcend it ("Still Not Dead," "I Made a Mistake") *
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