The Good With the Bad
Isbell Impresses, Owl City Depresses

I nearly missed one of the best records of 2013.

I’m still upset about it. In a lot of ways, I’ve organized my life so that sort of thing doesn’t happen. I hear as much music as I can in a given year, even things I think will probably be awful, on the off chance that I will find the one album that changes everything for me. My best discoveries have all been by accident. I liked the cover of the Choir’s Circle Slide, for instance, and bought it on a whim. I remembered Aimee Mann from that one Til Tuesday song I liked years before. (No, not that one.) I had my ear to the ground in time to not only hear Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois before a lot of people, but to snag a Superman cover before DC Comics found out about it.

So when an artist as superb as Jason Isbell passes right by me, I feel like I haven’t done my job. I vaguely knew of Isbell as a former member of the Drive-By Truckers, a band I can mostly take or leave, and I read some pretty good reviews of his earliest solo efforts. But I didn’t hear Southeastern, Isbell’s fantastic fourth album, until late November of 2013 – five months after it was released, and too late to make my annual mix CD of the year’s best tunes. (“Elephant” and “Cover Me Up” would have been on there without a doubt.) I snuck the album into my top 10 list, but I still wish I’d heard it when it came out. (I owe my good friend Tony Scott for raving about it to me until I gave it a shot.)

I was determined, then, not to miss Isbell’s follow-up, to be in at the start of the cycle this time. I’m glad I did, because while Something More Than Free isn’t quite the immediate classic Southeastern is, I’m growing to love it just as much as its celebrated predecessor. It’s a different kind of album, softer and wider in scope, but it again offers up a remarkably consistent set of songs with lyrics to die for. Where Southeastern dipped into autobiography more often than not, Something More Than Free is a storyteller’s record, and Isbell paints a picture like few of his peers.

My favorite lyrics here concern people finding their way out of difficult and oppressive situations. Opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” is the story of a man who “thought the highway loved me, but it beat me like a drum,” but it’s a story of awakening, of realizing that there is a path out. “A man is the product of all the people that he ever loved, it don’t make a difference how it ended up, if I loved you once I can do it all again, if it takes a lifetime…” The title song is the dark flip side of this one – the narrator feels defeated by his endless treadmill of waking, working and sleeping, but he still has hope. “The day will come, I’ll find a reason, somebody proud to love a man like me, my back is numb and my hands are freezing, but what I’m working for is something more than free…”

Best of these is “Speed Trap Town,” a vivid portrait of a life collapsing, and a man escaping, leaving behind an ailing family member and a broken relationship. “It never did occur to me to leave until tonight, when there’s no one left to ask if I’m all right, I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide if there’s anything that can’t be left behind…” The final refrain finds him on the open road, free: “Road got blurry when the sun came up, so I slept a couple hours in my pickup truck, drank a cup of coffee by an Indian mound a thousand miles away from that speed trap town…”

Southeastern also kept largely to country-inflected rock, with traditional chord structures, and while Something More sometimes stays in that vein – check out the great “24 Frames,” or the aforementioned “Speed Trap Town” – the songs Isbell has come up with here just as often break out of that mold and strike out for somewhere new. Most arresting is “Children of Children,” an epic acoustic lament with a walking bass line and some terrific Mellotron strings. It’s a dark piece of work – “I was riding on my mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn, and all the years I took from her just by being born” – and the big, bold two-minute guitar solo that closes it out matches its majestic sweep.

Similarly, jaunty pop songs like “The Life You Chose” and the wonderful “Hudson Commodore” head down melodic avenues you won’t expect. “Palmetto Rose” starts off like an electric blues song, but soon blooms into something with more on its mind, with flourishes from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires on fiddle. Closer “To a Band That I Loved” is a delightful singalong with a great little melody, sweet and sad. “I’ll be guarding your place in the lights, on the stage, in my heart, I guess we’re all still finding our part…”

For all of the ambition on Something More Than Free, my favorite moment may be the simplest: “Flagship,” one of the few indisputably autobiographical songs. It’s a feather-light, delicate acoustic number about a couple seeing the run-down, used-up world and pledging never to be like it. “Baby, let’s not live to see it fade, I’ll cancel all the plans I’ve ever made, I’ll drive and you can ride in the back seat, we’ll call ourselves the flagship of the fleet…” It’s the slightest thing here, but in many ways it’s the most beautiful.

For all the praise I’m lavishing on it, Something More Than Free is a grower, much more than Southeastern was. With every listen, it grows ever more impressive – it might be his best work, and I might be ready to call it that after a few more spins. Jason Isbell has become the face of the younger alt-country movement, and he lives up to that and more on this record. I’m glad to be in on it from the start this time, and I’m never going to miss another one.

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The possibility of missing another Southeastern drives me to hear as many new records as I can. From there, of course, my compulsive collector gene takes over, and I need to have every album by an artist I end up liking. Even when I’m sure what I’m going to get is absolute crap, I need to find out for myself, and add even the worst of those records to my collection. I know, it’s a sickness.

So that’s how I ended up with Mobile Orchestra, the godawful fifth album from Owl City. I used to like Adam Young, and I would vociferously defend him from those who called Owl City a cheap knockoff of the Postal Service. I still think I’m right – the similarities are superficial, and Young’s early work contains a go-for-broke whimsy that the dour Postal Service would never dream of. But I’m tired of defending him. Young has succeeded in sucking all the joy out of Owl City, turning it into a hollow shell of blandly commercial electro-pop, and with Mobile Orchestra, he’s added that extra whiff of desperation. This is about moving units, nothing more and nothing less.

Like its predecessor, The Midsummer Station, this one’s for the record label, and Young has tried to craft hit singles in as many markets as he can, hoping that one of them will stick. Opener “Verge” tries to replicate the success Avicii had with “Wake Me Up,” including guest vocals by Aloe Blacc. It’s pretty shameless, and ironic, considering this lyric: “For the rest of my life I will make a promise, to be true to myself and always be honest.” There’s nothing genuine about this – the oddball honesty that first interested the general public is entirely missing from this generic effort.

“Verge” is one of the record’s best songs, sadly. Young makes a bid for the country market by teaming up with Jake Owen and adding pedal steel guitars to “Back Home,” turns in some simplistic dance-pop for the clubs with “Can’t Live Without You,” and most dispiritingly, fires off two trial balloons in the direction of the contemporary Christian audience. These songs are just awful, sitting nicely with the worst synth-happy Jesus music, and featuring faceless CCM pop songstress Britt Nicole on one of them. This is probably a big step for Young, plainly stating his faith instead of dancing around it, but it’s so generic and sappy that it makes me want to vomit.

Really, there isn’t much here for even Young’s staunchest defenders to enjoy. It’s shallow, soulless and empty, begging for your cash. (I’m beyond sad that Hanson, a band that has fought against a reputation for making similarly awful pop, is wrapped up in this mess – their featured song, “Unbelievable,” is pretty lousy.) Listening to Mobile Orchestra, I am longing for the days of silly lines like “with fronds like these, who needs anemones.” Owl City used to be goofy, joyous fun. Now it’s like listening to Adam Young begging to be liked, no matter what he has to change to do it. It’s deflating. It makes me hate even the thought of buying another thing from him, and makes me question whether I ever really liked him in the first place. That’s a pretty bad result for 10 songs. But then again, these are 10 pretty damn bad songs.

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Next week, more good and more bad. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.