Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit with Wednesday
A Jason Isbell record always lands like a decoder ring in the ears and hearts of his audience, a soundtrack to his world and magically to theirs, too. Weathervanes carry the same revelatory power. This is a storyteller at the peak of his craft, observing his fellow wanderers, looking inside and trying to understand, reducing a universe to four minutes. He shrinks life small enough to name the fear and then strips it away, helping his listeners understand how two plus two stops equaling four once you reach a certain age — and carry a certain amount of scars.
“There is something about boundaries on this record,” Isbell says. “As you mature, you still attempt to keep the ability to love somebody fully and completely while growing into an adult and learning to love yourself.”
Weathervanes is a collection of grown-up songs: Songs about adult love, change, the danger of nostalgia and the interrogation of myths, cruelty and regret, and redemption. Life and death songs are played for and by grown-ass people. Some will make you cry alone in your car, and others will make you sing along with thousands of strangers in a big summer pavilion, united in the great miracle of being alive. The record features the rolling thunder of Isbell’s fearsome 400 Unit, who’ve earned a place in the rock ‘n’ roll cosmos alongside the most excellent backing ensembles, as powerful and essential to the storytelling as The E Street Band or the Wailers.
As Isbell puts it, they make a big noise, and he feels comfortable letting them be the main prism through which much of the world hears his art. He can be private, but with them behind him, he transforms, and there is a version of himself that can only exist in their presence. When he plays a solo show, he oversees the entire complicated juggle. On stage with the 400 Unit, he can be a guitar hero, a conductor, and a smiling fan of the majesty of his bandmates when he wants to hang back and listen to the sound.
The roots of this record go back to the pandemic’s isolation and Isbell’s recent time on the set as an actor in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. Guitars were in his trailer and his rented house, and he had a lot of time to sit and think. The melancholy yet soaring track “King of Oklahoma” was written there. Isbell also watched the great director work, saw the relationship between a clear vision and its execution, and perhaps most important, saw how even someone as decorated as Scorsese sought out and used his co-workers’ opinions.
“It helped when I got into the studio,” Isbell says. “I had this new sense of collaboration. You can have an idea, execute it, and not compromise — and still listen to the other people in the room.”