Bob Dylan famously sang about how you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit do more than just gage wind direction with "Weathervanes." Isbell has a unique ability to get deep inside the heads of his various characters to reveal insightful patterns of thought and behavior. Along with his talented 400 Unit band, Isbell has given yet another smart set of songs.
Isbell is especially adept at diagnosing pain points. Not wasting a moment, he opens the album with "Death Wish," which is about an especially troubled soul. "Did you ever love a woman with a death wish?" Isbell begins his lyrical exploration. Clearly, this line is not at all your typical conversational icebreaker. Perhaps you've never befriended anyone caught "climbing on the rooftop/Higher than a kite, dead of winter in a tank top," but Isbell has. This may not read like someone in your circle, but even if it doesn't, it nevertheless paints a terrifyingly believable word picture.
This lost individual may have never received proper therapy for her mental issues. Isbell realizes, although he hasn't reached the frightening circumstance of this roof walker, he also knows well how he can sometimes keep his emotions too bottled-up. "I was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man," he admits during "Middle of the Morning." It's a song about the never-ending work of personal, emotional growth. Isbell is committed to such growth, even though this may at times contradict the way he was raised.
Rather than make political statement songs, Isbell wisely chooses to instead create songs that voice the political -- personally. For example, the intense, guitar rock of "Save The World" puts the gun violence issue into a fully relatable scenario. Isbell is at the market after hearing about how "somebody shot up a classroom again." He then recalls, "Balloon poppin' at the grocery store/My heart jumpin' in my chest/I look around to find the exit door/Which way out here's the best?" The troubles in our times have permanently changed the way we live our lives – many times for the worse. You just know Isbell is trying to fathom in this instant what would happen if his daughter was involved in one of these dangerous incidents when he sings, "A lady says, "You have a lovely child/I'm too terrified to speak."
The sweet, acoustic country of "Iron Skillet," which is beautifully colored by Amanda Shires' sweetly empathetic fiddle, begins with practical advice to never wash an iron skillet. Isbell is never going to just sing about KP duty, though. Along the way, this song addresses fatherlessness, racism and imprisonment. One has to wonder if Isbell doesn't take his own advice in this song when he says, "Don't ask too many questions or you'll never get to sleep." Maybe putting these thoughts and questions into songs is how Isbell finally gets to sleep at night.
With "Volunteer," Isbell puts himself in the shoes of one that just wants to escape a horrible family life. "No, I don't want to fight for the rest of my life/I ain't your volunteer," Isbell sings at one point. One could easily write a full essay about every song on this album. It's all just that good. Yes, it's a little hard on the heart at its saddest places, but it's never less than fully compelling and true to life. A good case can be made that "Weathervanes" is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's best album yet.