Track This: Jason Isbell's "Shotgun Wedding"

I write about Jason Isbell a lot. And for good reason, he's one of my favorite guitarists and he's a great songwriter and singer, telling hard-edge slice of life stories that anyone can relate to. He made my top ten list for two subsequent records, placing in the number 2 spot for 2011 and 2013. Strangely, and unintentionally, he was beaten out by Ha Ha Tonka both times. This will be my last Isbell post for some time. Probably until his next record comes out, or I go see him live -- I haven't made it to a show since he was touring behind Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

Lately, I've been hearing that many people don't like the first two albums. While I think Here We Rest is the best, the first two have a number of great tracks. Sure, there is some dross, but no record is perfect. While he has definitely grown as a songwriter deserving the acclaim he has been receiving, some of his earliest tracks still rank among his best. Drive by Truckers tracks, like "Outfit, "Decoration Day," "Never Gonna Change," and "Goddamn Lonely Love" are still in his live set and they show his range as a songwriter. Older solo songs (Dress Blues, In a Razor Town) were definitely standouts on Live From Alabama.

2009's Sirens of the Ditch was a transitional album recorded with members of the Drive-by Truckers, yet many of the songs were much different than what he contributed as a writer for that band. Sirens showed a softer side, while also allowing him to rock out and deliver soulful ballads and folk tunes that would have felt out of place on a Truckers record. The first full album with the 400 unit was more rock-oriented, but the arrangements were too long and the songs never entirely gelled. Live versions have been far more immediate. With Here We Rest, Isbell was able to release a solid album from top to bottom, and Southeastern has continued the trend.

Sirens of the Ditch is arguably the most varied. Beginning with faster rock tunes ("Brand New Kind of Actress," the smoldering "Down in a Hole," the blazing "Try"), he quickly transitions to more thoughtful songs, such as "Chicago Promenade" (the keyboards are as important as the guitars) and live favorite, "Dress Blues." The Chicago bluesy "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" and folk number "The Devil is My Running Mate" are also standouts. They are much different than what has come since, even though they are fine experiments.

On recent listens, a track that I had never paid much attention to has really struck me, "Shotgun Wedding" -- At first, I wrote it off with "Grown," which always seemed too obvious. The song opens ups with clean guitar chords and keyboard melodies. Isbell's vocals are also very clean and song, given different circumstances, might have been a radio hit. The lyrics are much different than many of Isbell's other songs. The song is about a high school loser, and stalker, who is singing to his unrequited love, but Isbell never really digs into the darker aspects of the relationship. It remains fairly one-sided as the narrator frames the story, "Ten years out of High School / and still no idea what to do" with the time when he found out the object of his desire had become pregnant from a man she met at a night club. There are some clunky lyrics here -- "you took him home from a night club / he took a night club to you." That said, the song grabs you; the chorus is so catchy. The narrator asks, "So how about a shotgun wedding? / What about your dignity? /What about a different setting? / What about me?"

Isbell takes us through all the thoughts that go through his head and even though the narrator implicitly includes us in his suspect actions (we know how he spies on her), I feel entranced by the unreliable aspects of his narration. What is the real story here? What would happen if he actually spoke to her? There are no answers here, just a catchy song about an indelicate topic. Although not entirely successful, I hope Isbell will continue to experiment with these types of songs. He is often so specific in his details. In "Shotgun Wedding," the details he leaves out are as important as those he includes.

Track This is a recurring feature of Snobbin' that turns the music appreciation dial up and rips it off of your stereo. It attempts to introduce a new track, allow readers to rediscover an underappreciated track, or just serve as a forum to flat out discuss a track that falls into the ear candy category and should be listened to unabashedly for years to come.


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