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Jason Isbell's album 'Weathervanes' embraces the uncertainty and complexities of life


Jason Isbell has a lot going on this year.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) There's a warm wind blowing through the laundromat. There's a young man crying with a cowboy hat.

DETROW: He and his band, The 400 Unit, have just released a new album, "Weathervanes." And a few months ago, HBO aired a documentary just showing how intense the making of their last record was. That's not the only movie in Isbell's life. In October, he'll make his debut as an actor in a feature film in the Martin Scorsese drama "Killers Of The Flower Moon."


DETROW: Jason Isbell is known for writing songs with cinematic detail and with vivid characters. Earlier this week, he told me he wrote a lot of his new album during the downtime he had on set in Oklahoma. He even wrote a song called "King Of Oklahoma."


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Molly don't believe me, says she's going to leave me. The kids won't even know my name.

JASON ISBELL: I try to write with this sort of sense of place just because it's a good way to start. And, you know, I was exposed to a lot of people that I didn't know, people that I didn't see every day. And I spent a lot of time either on my own or just sort of bumming around Bartlesville, Okla. And it was really great for the songwriting process.

DETROW: That's one of the songs I want to talk about because that's such a great example of that classic storytelling song. You hear the story of this guy with a serious opioid addiction, what he's doing to feed it, how he got there. What's the starting point for that one?

ISBELL: For me, I will start with a character. And I'll try to find the right detail so we get sort of an overview of that character, and then I'll just follow him around - you know? - and see what he does.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) I was emptying my bladder on a 20-foot ladder - should have climbed down and found myself some shade. Doctor took a quick look, and I got out the checkbook and left with a pocket full of pills.

ISBELL: It's sort of like you're doing three jobs at once. You're trying to tell the story, and you're trying to paint this picture that people can visualize. But you're also trying to make something that's really singable, something that works as a song. And it's a fun challenge. It's not all that different from a crossword puzzle because you have a certain amount of space that you have to get a detail into.


ISBELL: I try not to have a finished product in mind when I start.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) She used to make me feel like the king of Oklahoma, but nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore.

DETROW: You produced this album entirely yourself. What was different about that experience for you in the day-to-day compared to other albums?

ISBELL: We worked with Dave Cobb on the last four records, I think. And, you know, I loved working with Dave. When I got sober 11 years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to turn over some control of that part of my work so I could just do my job - you know, write the songs, bring them in and say, tell me what to do. And Dave was great. This time as I was writing the songs, I thought to myself, I think I can do this without screwing it up. You know, I think I can actually go in the studio and not take my ego in there with me so much...


ISBELL: ...And not feel like I have anything to prove and just serve the song.

DETROW: Did that lead to any moments of you making decisions, any particular moments on any particular songs, where maybe if you had a producer, you'd be pushing for something else knowing that he could say no and you'd have that back and forth, but you're in the moment of saying, OK, it's all up to me, so maybe this is the choice I need to make here?

ISBELL: We spent a lot of time on the analog synth on "Save The World." It was tough, but when we finally got it, it was super rewarding.

DETROW: I guess I did kind of appreciate the synthesizer in "Save The World." But I'll say to you, as a parent of a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old, that's not what stuck out to me about that song. For context, this is a song about how a parent processes school shootings. It seemed like you were particularly writing about Uvalde.

ISBELL: The problem with that one was I had to write it a couple different times because it's a delicate subject. It's extremely heavy, and it's so hard to write about something like that in a way that seems honest and true and right.


ISBELL: And for me, coming from my personal perspective usually proves to be the best move on that. All I know to do is say, well, this is how I feel.

DETROW: Well, I mean, the feeling of living in a world where that's a possibility is real for a lot of people.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) And when you said the cops just let them die, I heard the shaking in your voice, and for a moment you began to cry. Then I heard you make a choice.

DETROW: For me, that jumped out because I have this visceral memory of the day that happened, picking my kid up from school and watching him play on the playground as the news alerts made it clearer and clearer, just the scope of it and, you know, just hiding that from your kid. And that's such a hard feeling that I feel like so many parents make a lot.

ISBELL: Like, we know that we're not supposed to do that. We know that if we have these feelings and these fears, that they're supposed to come out and be expressed for what they are, so they don't come out in different ways. But when you're in that kind of, you know, survival mode that you go into, you think, well, I have to continue to take care of this person and teach this person how to function. And also, I don't know what to say.


ISBELL: I don't know how to explain this to a child, you know? I can't make this make sense, so I'm just going to shut up about it and bury it somewhere. And that sucks.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Can we keep her here at home instead, and can we teach her how to fight?

DETROW: The label branded this as an album about grown-up stuff, you know? That's how you framed it. And listening through, I would say there's not a lot of resolution in a lot of these songs. There's a lot of uncertainty. There's a lot of dissatisfaction. There's a lot of drifting. "If You Insist" is a song that jumps out to me about two people almost circling each other and saying, is this working? Is this not working? I don't really know.


JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) If you insist on being lonely, can you leave a couple smokes?

DETROW: Is all that part of being grown-up to you, just not really knowing what step is next?

ISBELL: Yeah, that might be the No. 1 thing about being an adult, is figuring out when to stop looking for an answer. There's something there in sort of my own personal development of masculinity because I've always been the type of person who thought, you know, if there's a problem, I need to solve it, or I need to suggest some sort of resolution. And being married for the last decade, it has occurred to me - better late than never, I guess - that sometimes your job is just to listen.



JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) I ain't used to this, seeing everybody's hand. I was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man.

ISBELL: To me, I think finds its way into a lot of my work, this idea that this is not my problem to solve, but if I can just bear witness to it, then maybe, you know, the other person will feel like they're not going crazy. They're not seeing things that aren't there.

DETROW: That's Jason Isbell. He and his band, The 400 Unit, have a new album out called "Weathervanes." Jason, thanks so much for being here.

ISBELL: Thank you. I really enjoyed it. I always do.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.