As Jason Isbell inched deeper and deeper into writing what would become Reunions, he noticed a theme begin to emerge in its songs. “I looked around and thought, ‘There’s so many ghosts here,’” he tells Apple Music. “To me, ghosts always mean a reunion with somebody you’ve known before, or yourself coming back to tell you something that you might have missed.” It’s possible that the Alabama native had missed more than most: Starting with a promising but fairly turbulent stint as a member of Drive-By Truckers in the 2000s, the first act and decade of the Jason Isbell origin story had been largely defined by his kryptonite-like relationship with alcohol. His fourth LP since becoming sober in 2012, Reunions is another set of finely rendered rock and roots music that finds Isbell—now A Great American Songwriter—making peace with the person he used to be. It’s an album whose scenes of love and anger and grief and parenthood are every bit as rich as its sonics. “Up until the last couple of years, I didn’t necessarily feel safe because I thought there was a risk that I might fall back into those old ways,” he says of revisiting his past. “These songs and the way the record sounds reflects something that was my intention 15 or 12 years ago, but I just didn’t have the ability and the focus and the means to get there as a songwriter or a recording artist.” Here, he takes us inside each song on the album.
What’ve I Done to Help “It seems like this song set the right mood for the record. It's a little bit indicting of myself, but I think it's also a positive message: Most of what I'm talking about on this album is trying to be as aware as possible and not just get lost in your own selfish bubble, because sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with yourself. Incidentally, I started singing this song as I was driving around close to my house. [The chorus] was just something that I found myself repeating over and over to myself. Of course, all that happened before the virus came through, but I was writing, I think, about preexisting social conditions that really the virus just exacerbated or at least turned a light on. We had a lot of division between the people that have and the people that don't, and I think it's made pretty obvious now.”
Dreamsicle “It's a sad story about a child who's in the middle of a home that's breaking apart. But I find that if you can find positive anchors for those kinds of stories, if you can go back to a memory that is positive—and that's what the chorus does—then once you're there, inside that time period in your life, it makes it a little easier to look around and pay attention to the darker things. This kind of song could have easily been too sad. It's sad enough as it is, but there are some very positive moments, the chorus being the most important: You're just sitting in a chair having a popsicle on a summer night, which is what kids are supposed to be doing. But then, you see that things are pretty heavy at home.”
Only Children “My wife Amanda [Shires] and I were in Greece, on Hydra, the island Leonard Cohen had lived on and, I think, the first place he ever performed one of his songs for people. We were there with a couple of friends of ours, Will Welch and his wife Heidi [Smith]. Will was working on a piece on Ram Dass for his magazine and I was working on this song and Amanda was working on a song and Heidi was working on a book, and we all just sort of sat around and read, sharing what we were working on with each other. And it occurred to me that you don't do that as much as you did when you were a kid, just starting to write songs and play music with people. It started off as sort of a love song to that and that particular time, and then from there people started emerging from my past, people who I had spent time with in my formative years as a creative person. There was one friend that I lost a few years ago, and she and I hadn't been in touch for a long time, but I didn't really realize I was writing about her until after I finished the song and other people heard it and they asked if that was who it was about. I said I guess it was—I didn't necessarily do that intentionally, but that's what happens if you're writing from the heart and from the hip.”
Overseas “Eric Clapton said in an interview once that he was a good songwriter, but not a great songwriter—he didn’t feel like he would ever be great because he wasn't able to write allegorically. I was probably 12 or 13 when I read that, and it stuck with me: To write an entire song that's about multiple things at once can be a pretty big challenge, and that’s what I was trying to do with ‘Overseas.’ On one hand, you have an expatriate who had just had enough of the country that they're living in and moved on and left a family behind. And the other is more about my own personal story, where I was home with our daughter when my wife was on tour for a few months. I was feeling some of the same emotions and there were some parallels. I think the most important thing to me was getting the song right: I needed it to feel like the person who has left had done it with good reason and that the person's reasons had to be clearly understandable. It’s not really a story about somebody being left behind as much as it's a story about circumstances.”
Running With Our Eyes Closed “It's a love song, but I try really hard to look at relationships from different angles, because songs about the initial spark of a relationship—that territory has been covered so many times before and so well that I don't know that I would have anything new to bring. I try to look at what it’s like years down the road, when you're actually having to negotiate your existence on a daily basis with another human being or try to figure out what continues to make the relationship worth the work. And that's what this song is about: It's about reevaluating and thinking, ‘Okay, what is it about this relationship that makes it worth it for me?’"
River “I think that song is about the idea that as a man—and I was raised this way to some extent—you aren't supposed to express your emotions freely. It sounds almost like a gospel song, and the character is going to this body of water to cast off his sins. The problem with that is that it doesn't actually do him any good and it doesn't help him deal with the consequences of his actions and it doesn't help him understand why he keeps making these decisions. He's really just speaking to nobody. And the song is a cautionary tale against that. I think it's me trying to paint a portrait of somebody who is living in a pretty toxic form of being a man. I'm always trying to take stock of how I'm doing as a dad and as a husband. And it's an interesting challenge, because to support my wife and my daughter without exerting my will as a man over the household is something that takes work, and it's something that I wouldn't want to turn away from. There’s a constant evaluation for me: Am I being supportive without being overbearing, and am I doing a good job of leading by example? Because that's really honestly all you can do for your kids. If my daughter sees me go to therapy to talk about things that are troubling me and not allow those things to cause me to make bad choices, then she's going to feel like it's okay to talk about things herself. And if I ever have a boy, I want him to think the same thing.”
Be Afraid “It's a rock song and it's uptempo and I love those. But those are hard to write sometimes. It helps when you're angry about something, and on ‘Be Afraid,’ I was definitely angry. I felt like I stick my neck out and I think a lot of us recording artists end up sticking our neck out pretty often to talk about what we think is right. And then, you turn around and see a whole community of singers and entertainers who just keep their mouth shut. I mean, it's not up to me to tell somebody how to go about their business, but I think if you have a platform and you're somebody who is trying to make art, then I think it's impossible to do that without speaking your mind. For me, it's important to stay mindful of the fact that there are a lot of people in this world that don't have any voice at all and nobody is paying any attention to what they're complaining about and they have some real valid complaints. I'm not turning my anger toward the people in the comments, though—I'm turning my anger toward the people who don't realize that as an entertainer who sometimes falls under scrutiny for making these kinds of statements, you still are in a much better position than the regular, everyday American who doesn't have any voice at all.”
St. Peter’s Autograph “When you're in a partnership with somebody—whether it's a marriage or a friendship—you have to be able to let that person grieve in their own way. I was writing about my perspective on someone else's loss, because my wife and I lost a friend and she was much closer to him than I was and had known him for a long time. What I was trying to say in that song was ‘It's okay to feel whatever you need to feel, and I'm not going to let my male-pattern jealousy get in the way of that.’ A lot of the things that I still work on as an adult are being a more mature person, and a lot of it comes from untying all these knots of manhood that I had sort of tied into my brain growing up in Alabama. Something I've had to outgrow has been this idea of possession in a relationship and this jealousy that I think comes from judgment on yourself, from questioning yourself. You wind up thinking, 'Well, do I deserve this person, and if not, what's going to happen next?' And part of it was coming to terms with the fact that it didn't matter what I deserved—it’s just what I have. It’s realizing something so simple as your partner is another human being, just like you are. Writing is a really great way for me to explain how I feel to myself and also sometimes to somebody else—this song I was trying to speak to my wife and addressing her pretty directly, saying, ‘I want you to know that I'm aware of this. I know that I'm capable of doing this. I'm going to try my best to stay out of the way.’ And that's about the best you can do sometimes.”
It Gets Easier “I was awake until four in the morning, just sort of laying there, not terribly concerned or worried about anything. And there was a time where I thought, ‘Well, if I was just drunk, I could go to sleep.’ But then I also thought, ‘Well, yeah, but I would wake up a couple hours later when the liquor wore off.’ I think it's important for me to remember how it felt to be handicapped by this disease and how my days actually went. I've finally gotten to the point now where I don't really hate that guy anymore, and I think that's even helped me because I can go back and actually revisit emotions and memories from those times without having to wear a suit of armor. For a many years, it was like, ‘Okay, if you're going to go back there, then you're going to have to put this armor on. You're going to have to plan your trip. You're going to have to get in and get out, like you're stealing a fucking diamond or something. Because if you stay there too long or if you wind up romanticizing the way your life was in those days, then there's a good chance that you might slip.' I think the more honest I am with myself, the less likely I am to collapse and go back to who I used to be. It's not easy to constantly remind yourself of how much it sucked to be an active alcoholic, but it's necessary. I wrote this song for people who would get a lot of the inside references, and definitely for people who have been in recovery for a long period of time. I wrote it for people who have been going through that particular challenge and people who have those conversations with themselves. And really that's what it is at its root: a song about people who are trying to keep an open dialogue with themselves and explain, this is how it's going to be okay. Because if you stop doing that and then you lose touch with the reasons that you got sober in the first place and you go on cruise control, then you slip up or you just wind up white-knuckling it, miserable for the rest of your life. And I can't make either of those a possibility.”
Letting You Go “Once, when my daughter was really little, my wife said, ‘Every day, they get a little bit farther away from you.’ And that's the truth of it: It’s a long letting-go process. This is a simple song, a country song—something that I was trying to write like a Billy Joe Shaver or Willie Nelson song. I think it works emotionally because it’s stuff that a lot of people have felt, but it's tough to do in a way that wasn't cheesy, so I started with when we first met her and then tried to leave on a note of ‘Eventually, I know these things are going to happen. You’re going to have to leave.’ And that's the whole point. Some people think, ‘Well, my life is insignificant, none of this matters.’ And that makes them really depressed. But then some people, like me, think, ‘Man, my life is insignificant. None of this matters. This is fucking awesome.’ I think that might be why I wound up being such a drunk, but it helps now, still, for me to say, ‘I can't really fuck this up too bad. So I might as well enjoy it.’”