The Past Is the Enemy
On Lesser Works and Listening Anyway

I had an interesting realization while listening to the new Jason Isbell album: I am guilty, often, of victimizing artists for their own success.

I can name a million examples. I haven’t truly loved a Radiohead album in 20 years, mainly because I cannot get past how good OK Computer is. Kendrick Lamar’s perfectly respectable DAMN got a lower grade from me because To Pimp a Butterfly was so defining. Do I need to bring up Tori Amos? Three immortal albums that changed my life, and nothing since has measured up for me.

The problem is that I miss a lot of what is good about these later records by comparing them to their authors’ best work. In some ways that’s the job of a reviewer. The number one question I get, when people care about my opinion on things, is some variation of “Is this one as good as the last one?” Sometimes the answer is yes, but sometimes the answer is “no, but listen anyway.” Still, that “no” at the start there, that turns a lot of people off.

So my initial take on Reunions, Isbell’s seventh album (and second in a row to be credited to him and his band, the 400 Unit), was disappointment. Isbell is one of the best songwriters in the game right now, and his last three records, starting with the incredibleSoutheastern and continuing through 2017’s great The Nashville Sound, have been pretty close to perfect. I could name highlights, but I’d just be copying and pasting full track listings. These three records have been showcases for a songsmith at the absolute height of his powers.

Reunions isn’t quite on that level. I posted my first-blush opinion online, and it got a lot of pushback. That opinion was that when a writer as good as Isbell makes something that is merely great, instead of transcendent, it feels like a dropoff. I tried to emphasize that Reunions is really good, but some still took it as a harsh criticism. So let me be clear now: Reunions is really good. Nashville is full of songwriters who will never make a record this good. These ten songs would be the envy of most people with recording contracts. It’s honestly really good.

We can talk highlights of this one, no doubt. Start with the overall tone – Isbell’s guitar has rarely sounded better, and the 400 Unit has rarely sounded more live on record. The first song is a six-minute mantra called “What’ve I Done to Help,” about the personal responsibility we all share to make the world a better place. (It’s one of the songs here that I think is a little simple and a little on-the-nose for Isbell.) The highlight of this track is how it takes its three-chord structure and makes something gripping out of it. And man, don’t even get me started on the lead guitar work on “Overseas” and the slinky Tom Petty groove of “Running With Our Eyes Closed.” Mwah. Beautiful.

“Running” is another example of a song that could have used more – the chorus repeats the title four times, the exact same way, and I get that the music Isbell is homaging here does the same thing, but I wanted it to go a few more places. I know Isbell can give us perfectly formed songs, because he does it here several times. “It Gets Easier” might be the album’s masterpiece. It finds Isbell looking back on his own alcoholism – he’s been sober for years – and admitting that it’s a daily struggle. “It gets easier, but it never gets easy, I can say it’s all worth it but you won’t believe me…”

I’m a huge fan of “Be Afraid,” which treads similar ground. “Every one of us is counting dice that we didn’t roll and the loser is the last one to ask for help,” he sings, before hitting the hook line: “Be afraid, be very afraid, but do it anyway.” The band is on fire on this one. “Overseas” tells two stories about people in different countries, and Isbell melds these tales expertly. “St. Peter’s Autograph” is a delightful love song (“What can I do to help you sleep, I’ll work hard and work for cheap”), and the closing track “Letting You Go” travels with Isbell as he brings his newborn daughter home from the hospital and imagines the day he will have to give her away. (“It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going, the hard part is letting you go…”)

These are all great songs, and the rest of Reunions is very good as well. Taken on its own, and not compared with Isbell’s past musical miracles, it’s excellent. So what’s the point of comparing it, then? I don’t really know anymore. Everything I’ve said is true, but it all kept me from really digging into Reunions and hearing it on its own terms. It’s a lesson I need to learn. I can get caught up in the rankings, in the which-one-is-better game, and miss the charms of the music in front of me. Don’t let any such comparisons stop you from hearing Reunions. Even if it isn’t Isbell’s best, it’s well worth your time.

* * * * *

If you think I hold Isbell to a high standard because of his past work, you can imagine my expectations for a Jellyfish reunion.

For those who know, you know. For those who don’t, Jellyfish was one of the best pop bands to ever walk the earth. I don’t say that lightly. I own very few perfect albums, ones about which I would change nothing. Jellyfish’s two records – 1990’s Bellybutton and 1993’s Spilt Milk – are perfect. They are perfectly written, they are perfectly arranged, they are perfectly performed and recorded. My sole complaint about Jellyfish’s output is that there is not more of it.

Alas, the band broke up in 1994 after touring Spilt Milk, a tour I got to see as a very excited 19-year-old. I’ve followed the musical adventures of the Jellyfishers through the years, always getting a little thrill when I see Roger Manning’s name pop up on an album, or see that Jason Falkner has released another record in Japan. It’s been 26 years, and the possibility of a reunion grows ever dimmer. And I wonder if a reunion could even live up, honestly. Jellyfish was a once-in-a-lifetime lightning-in-a-bottle kind of thing, and comparing anything to the two records they made together would be a fool’s game.

But of course I’m doing it anyway. Three months ago I heard about The Lickerish Quartet, a trio (ha!) named after a 1970 erotic movie from Italy. The three members of the trio are Roger Manning, Eric Dover and Tim Smith, all former members of Jellyfish. This is probably the closest we will ever get to a true-blue Jellyfish reunion, a truth only magnified by their first EP, Threesome Vol. 1. These four songs come nearer than almost anything I’ve heard since to capturing the spirit, sound and style of that band.

To be clear, this is not Jellyfish. You’d need the voice and drums of Andy Sturmer for that, at the very least. But this is lovely, silly, ornate pop music, made with undeniable skill and a sense of history, just like Jellyfish. This EP is beautifully arranged, candy-coated and sparkling. In true Jellyfish tradition, opening track “Fadoodle” makes me think about how much painstaking work went into constructing a song this silly. It’s about a guy asking for sex, but it’s charmingly ridiculous. You could listen to just the backing vocals (“Buzz buzz! Beep beep!”) and have a great time.

The rest of Threesome is more serious in tone, but no less glorious. “Bluebird’s Blues” is a gorgeous pop song. Those harmonies! Those guitar lines! The vibes! It’s all wonderful. “There Is a Magic Number” is a dark and terrific strummer, Manning providing keyboard accents over a swaying groove. And the EP concludes with its finest moment, the six-minute epic “Lighthouse Spaceship,” which is like Queen, ELO and Stevie Wonder all at once. It’s amazing, and it catches the spirit of Spilt Milk wonderfully.

I had very high expectations for Threesome Vol. 1, and even though it’s not Jellyfish, I loved it anyway. My main complaint about it is a familiar one – there isn’t enough of it. Four songs is barely a taste. I’m hopeful that there will be further volumes, and that the Lickerish Quartet spins this melodic gold for a long time to come. Listen and buy here.

Next week, a deep dive into the catalog of an obscure ‘70s prog band. That sounds exciting, right? If you answered yes honestly, come back in seven days.

See you in line Tuesday morning.