I make this claim at a time when Isbell is receiving some nice press, including this profile in the for little more than being an Alabaman who acknowledges Covid-19 exists and who thinks it prudent to avoid contracting it. In his interview with Paul Elie, he comes across as affable enough. If he were, say, a deputy town manager for a sunbelt boomtown I’d have no problem with him, and his would-be advocacy that I imagine—issuing bonds for dog parks every quarter mile (or whatever), his singular vision that rescue dogs might rescue us. But, as a person who enjoys “music” even if mostly as the soundtrack to my own workaday mundanity, a person living in my own sunbelt boomtown, I can’t stand the guy!
To people who want to put him in league with John Prine and Leonard Cohen, may I suggest Isbell’s true songwriting lineage is the creative teams behind the rise of Starbucks and Trader Joes? He seems clandestinely sponsored by a strip mall parking lot designed to keep you from escaping it. The song “Dreamsicle,” probably the best song from his 2019 album Reunions, makes for a cloying example. This is a song that manages to spoil dreamsicles, summer nights, and lawn chairs in a tidy 3:46. The effect is that now if I happen to enjoy a dreamsicle on a summer night I do so with an invisible Isbell over my shoulder reminding me that I am in fact “enjoying a dreamsicle on a summer night” in a way that is wholly similar to how I might glimpse the Michelins on the above-mentioned CR-V and think, despite myself, “because so much is riding on my tires.”
Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” “Dreamsicle” is a song that sounds bemusing on first listen, but turns out to be depressing as hell if you bother to decipher the narrative. Conceptually, the song occupies Isbell’s dominant motif of replacing Springsteen’s everyman with a repentant but clueless redneck who is the victim of his upbringing. That this mirrors the thesis of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an important clue. Under the “Dreamsicle” spell, we join Isbell in a pastime with which I’m familiar but do my best to avoid: that is, displacing the ache of love denied by obsessively devouring the whole box of dreamsicles. Titling a song after a frozen novelty causes a dissonant, almost subconscious realization of how bleak it is. And, it’s bleak as shit--bleaker still because its bleakness is presented as nostalgia for pain.
The rest of Reunions proceeds similarly but with less charm. The album is necessary to discuss because it seems now like a sad call to which Georgia Blue offers a sadder response. Its first track “What Have I Done to Help?” has an echo of the chanted quality of Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels (On a Gravel Road).” But, where Williams’ song revels in late-afternoon and honeysuckle, Isbell offshores whimsy in favor of something that I guess is metonymy for the thought-loop of a guilt-ridden and fragile super ego, asking over and over, “What have I done to help?” and answering idiosyncratically “Somebody save me.” Throughout, he occupies the persona of the atomized man, haunted by his own solipsism. In total, the album sounds as if sung by a tortured mud puddle. Lyrically it’s about as deep as a park bench designed to inhibit sleeping. The storytelling for which Isbell is often extolled amounts to something like detailing one’s mental health history to a stranger at an Applebee's bar.
For all its shortcomings, the portrait of self-medicating and suffering that Reunions offers is exactly what won’t be fixed any time soon by Joe Biden and the Democrats and the 12,670 Georgians who chose Biden over Donald Trump. These things obviously won’t be fixed by a covers album either--something the song “Be Afraid,” the loudest single from Reunions, seems actually to foretell. The song is ostensibly about being a dick to stagehands for fear of not being a dick to stagehands. Its chorus is a celebration of dread. The triumphant refrain “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Do it anyway,” sounds to me like a manic, end-times redux of the expression “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Anyway, for my purpose here it’s too coincidental not to note that in the last verse of “Be Afraid,” Isbell sings, “And if your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice to sing a cover when we need a battle cry,” which of course lays curious groundwork for a subsequent album of covers in which he shape-shifts again into an Act Blue email that recorded an album.
As an album, Georgia Blue is wooden and unremarkable. Isbell ruins REM’s “Nightswimming,” but sings Vic Chestnut’s “I’m Through” well enough. His rendition of Otis Redding’s “Since I’ve been Loving You” would probably allow him to advance through a round of The Voice, were he a contestant. When he enlists Brittany Spencer, former backup singer to Carrie Underwood, to sing “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the result is closer to Muzak than homage, and the backup singers’ refrain “I know you will” becomes something you repeat to a friend hellbent on bad choices as opposed to the righteous support they offer in the original. As a whole, the album is chalky and subdued. It sounds like my beer tastes after I suck a zinc lozenge.
Ultimately, it’s not the sound but the intent that’s at issue here. When Isbell gives The Black Crowes “Sometimes Salvation” the dreamsicle treatment, he’s actually doing something pretty close to what he does on Reunions and throughout his discography going all the way back through his time with the Truckers. In all cases he suggests himself as performing the work of witness—depicting the pathos such as it is of the progressive, but country, white Southerner, minutely enlarging the White Southerner’s concerns and aesthetics. The purpose is ideological. It has been all along.
Georgia Blue reveals this ideology to be a hilarious travesty. According to its own jacket-copy, the album is designed to rope a handful of disparate songs into the suggestion that their existence in time and space laid some invisible groundwork for electing a 77-year old centrist who can’t pass an infrastructure bill, who opposes the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, who is too enfeebled, both morally and politically, to actually forgive student debt or make the child tax credit permanent, and who (thankfully) ended the war in Afghanistan, but did so in a way that makes the election of a more fascist version of Trump (if not Trump himself) more likely in 2024. Oh yes, and on his coattails rode two Georgia senators unlikely to win re-election, whose flipping of the Senate to the Dems has served so far only to further expose the way in which the Democratic party has functioned as the more moderate wing of the Republican party since 1992 at least. So that what Isbell is actually celebrating is a thin victory bacon-wrapped around a filet mignon of defeats.
Georgia Blue’s digital release happened on October 15, the same day it was reported that Joe Manchin had succeeded in having Biden’s climate program cut from the budget bill. Obviously I don’t think it’s worth downloading, but if you want just a taste, listen to Isbell let the blood from REM’s and see if you don’t know a few moments of despair masquerading as peace.