Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit launched their supporting tour for Weathervanes, Isbell’s eighth collection of original material, three months before its release, a tacit admission that these songs were built for the long haul. An exacting craftsman, Isbell constructed Weathervanes with tunes that benefit from familiarity: They’re filled with open spaces for a band to explore on stage. On record, these songs reveal their intricacies slowly, the measured, almost leisurely pace suggesting that Isbell is confident that his audience will stick with the album as they learn its subtle pleasures.
The calm breeze blowing through Weathervanes comes as something of a relief. As portrayed in Running With Our Eyes Closed, a recent documentary that chronicled the making of Reunions—the album he released at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020—Isbell sometimes treats his craft as a burden, a trait that can carry some personal pitfalls. During those sessions, he sometimes appeared consumed with the prospect of living up to his own high standards, a worry that sparked marital strife between Isbell and Amanda Shires, the singer-songwriter and fiddle player who occasionally doubles as a member of the 400 Unit. Shires is credited as a guest performer on Weathervanes, the same billing that harmonica player Mickey Raphael, a legend from Willie Nelson’s Family band, receives for his spot on the lovely “Strawberry Woman.”
Though he’s worked with producer David Cobb since 2013’s breakthrough Southeastern, Isbell produced Weathervanes himself (Matt Pence provided additional production on a handful of tracks). He chooses to emphasize performance as much as the songwriting, a decision that shines a light on the 400 Unit’s chemistry. Weathervanes has its share of intimate moments, such as the gently rolling “Strawberry Woman” or “Cast Iron Skillet,” where the understated acoustic setting makes the narrator’s misguided life lessons (“Don’t drink and drive, you’ll spill it”) all the more unsettling, especially when Isbell murmurs, “That dog bites my kid, I’ll kill it.”
The 400 Unit excel on the quieter songs, conjuring the ghost of John Prine on “Volunteer” and Bruce Springsteen at his most reserved with the subdued train-track rhythms of “If You Insist.” Still, they sound best when they crank up their amplifiers, relying on texture as much as volume. Take “Death Wish,” where the band vamps on a minor-key riff, ratcheting up the tension as Isbell’s narrator sounds increasingly desperate. They pull off a similar trick on “Save the World,” which is as urgent and disturbing as a news bulletin. As Isbell struggles to process his thoughts in the wake of learning about another school shooting—“Balloon popping at the grocery store, my heart jumping in my chest/I look around to find the exit door, which way out of here’s the best”—the 400 Unit accompany his emotions by playing with controlled anger.
Weathervanes’ unsettled moments wind up making the sun-bleached vibe of the rest of the album feel earned: It takes some effort for Isbell to relax. That mellow feeling is crystallized by how “Middle of the Morning” cannily crosses Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” with the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider.” Such nods to Isbell’s forefathers are deliberate: “When We Were Close,” his salute to the late Justin Townes Earle, is propelled by a riff that recalls Tom Petty at his most Floridian; it comes within spitting distance of such wild-eyed Southern boys as .38 Special. Isbell and the 400 Unit aren’t revivalists, though. They specialize in synthesis, blending styles and eras so they feel familiar yet fresh, a trick encapsulated by “This Ain’t It” and “Miles,” the pair of open-ended, open-road jams that close the record. Weathervanes itself sounds forged from the endless miles the 400 Unit have logged over the past decade: It’s a snapshot of a band humming at cruise altitude, keeping focus not on the destination but the journey.
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