The name Jason Isbell carries a very heavy weight in the country sphere. Often associated with his staunch liberal politics and masterful lyricism, he is arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the entire genre. Despite the polarity, he is often recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of the generation and consistently creates some of the most captivating and thought-provoking songs around today.
Weathervanes is the fifth studio album for Isbell along with the 400 Unit and his eighth album overall. Coming three years after his previous entry, Reunions, Weathervanes ultimately feels like Isbell taking the extremely personal nature of the aforementioned album and blending it with his most popular and critically acclaimed one, Southeastern.
The record feels like Isbell is at his most vulnerable, diving deep into his anxiety, fears and upbringing. Save the World best illustrates Isbell coping with his anxiety. He opens the track up with a scene very reminiscent of the real-life tragedy of the Uvalde, Texas shooting. He further laments on his anxiety and fear of gun violence throughout the later verses. Isbell uses the chorus to further express his struggles with anxiety and control.
“Swear you’ll save the world when I lose my grip
Tell me you’re in control
Swear you’ll save the world when I start to slip
‘Cause you’ll be the first to know’
Though the album absolutely deals with a lot of heavy topics and themes, Isbell expertly balances Weathervanes with some lighter tracks that still leave you marveling at his songwriting. If You Insist, Strawberry Woman and This Ain’t It are great examples of this.
Strawberry Woman is an early standout on the record. Though it doesn’t have the weight of tracks such as Save the World and Cast Iron Skillet, it is a gorgeous track that takes an inherently straightforward love song and elevates it tenfold with strong imagery and details. From a young man crying in a cowboy hat and square-toed boots to likening his lover to thick-cut bacon on Texas toast, the song is full of small details that make the world of the track feel lived in well beyond its four-minute runtime. It’s moments like Strawberry Woman where it feels like Isbell is truly painting simply by using words. The second to last verse is an excellent example of this.
“I remember you looking up at me
Drinking Irish whiskey on the Irish sea
And we walked through the weather and we walked through time
Strawberry woman with her hand in mine”
The aforementioned, Cast Iron Skillet is another track that simply makes you sit in awe at Isbell’s lyrical ability and craft. The track opens up with very humorous, John Prine-esque lines,
“Don’t wash the cast iron skillet
Don’t drink and drive, you’ll spill it“
From that point on, however, the song takes a much darker tone. On the surface, Cast Iron Skillet is a song full of small vignettes about the darkness surrounding the small town the track is set in. From the narrator’s father serving life in jail for killing a man, to a girl, Jamie, being disowned by her family due to their racial prejudice, the song is a beautifully depressing one that depicts Isbell’s issues with his southern upbringing. The final chorus hits a crescendo with the final lyrics reading,
“Don’t wash the cast iron skillet
This town won’t get no better, will it?
She found love and it was simple as a weather vane
But her own family tried to kill it”
It’s Isbell’s ability to say what many people are thinking and feeling that ultimately leaves me lacking the appropriate words to find to adequately express just how phenomenal his songwriting is here on Weathervanes. It’s becoming abundantly clear that he is operating on a level songwriting-wise that few will ever achieve outside of the Bruce Springsteens, Bob Dylans and John Prines of the world.
For example, in King of Oklahoma, he paints a picture of a desperate man planning a worksite robbery. While the verses paint the picture of the man’s plans and circumstances, the chorus reminisces on the love he lost due to his worsening circumstances.
“She used to wake me up with coffee every morning
And I’d hear her homemade house shoes slide across the floor
She used to make me feel like the king of Oklahoma
But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore”
The final line, “But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore” is a haunting lyric that verbalizes feelings of apathy and depression perfectly.
Another example of Isbell grappling with his uncertainties comes in White Beretta. Here, Isbell takes aim at his religious upbringing and feelings of uncertainty regarding the church and religion in general in the first pre-chorus.
“I was raised in the church
I was washed in the blood, we all were
Saved before we even left home
If His love is unconditional
Why do I feel so miserable?“
It feels like natural instinct to highlight and arguably gush over the songwriting on any given Jason Isbell record. However, with Weathervanes, it is extremely apparent that he stepped it up production-wise as well. Every song feels so full of life and well-realized with every instrument being blended and showcased brilliantly. Isbell’s guitar tone, in particular, is the best it’s ever been. The production becomes even more impressive given that Isbell himself produced the entire record with Matt Pence providing additional help with five of the 13 tracks.
Isbell’s severely underrated guitar playing shines on Weathervanes. The aforementioned tone present in Middle of the Morning, This Ain’t It and King of Oklahoma particularly sound perfect from a production standpoint, serving their respective songs beautifully.
While it is much too early to crown Weathervanes as the best Jason Isbell record, it is a serious contender. While I would still consider Southeastern Isbell’s magnum opus, Weathervanes is an extremely close second. I think Weathervanes is more successful in revealing Isbell’s inner self, anxieties and overall story. However, the stories told in Southeastern and the construction of the album as a whole are slightly stronger. That being said, however, Weathervanes is an absolutely outstanding, poignant record that feels like it is going to stand the test of time. This album is a serious contender for album of the year across all genres.
Listen to Cast Iron Skillet and Strawberry Woman here: