Painful Joy

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

I listen to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new album, The Nashville Sound (2017), with my chest, not my ears; my chest is where Isbell’s voice– a voice so full that it’s worn and frayed around the edges–resonates.

As I repeatedly listen to his album, I’m beginning to realize that the two most cogent emotions of Isbell’s music, pain and joy, don’t exist in opposition like I once thought; they exist together somewhere deep within. I can’t totally explain it, but somehow joy and pain they feel the same.

Now, I was an Isbell fan long before this album. His story-telling Americana blues songs served as the perfect soundtrack for the late nights when I was feeling lonely at college. My favorite Isbell song, “Codeine,” is a story of pure heartbreak. “One of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine.”

In Isbell’s new album, the pain is still there. In “Anxiety,” Isbell sings about the torment that his anxiety causes him. “Last of My Kind” is a lament about loneliness that passage of time causes him to feel. In “Molotov” Isbell sings about broken promises.

Yet, The Nashville Sound is about more than pain. In “If We Were Vampires,” Isbell with his wife, Amanda Shires, sings about the way that one of them will likely die and leave the other alone:

“If we were vampires and death was a joke/ We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke/ and laugh at all the lovers and their plans/ I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand/ maybe time running out is a gift.”

Here, the sadness is wholly interconnected with the joy; you can’t have one without the other. The other songs in the album share the same quality. For instance, “White Man’s World” is a song of guilt and sadness in response to Trump’s election, but it is also a rousing anthem of change. Isbell doesn’t lose his faith in humanity because of “the fire in [his] little girl’s eyes.” Similarly, “Hope the High Road” is a song about keeping hope in the goodness of one another despite the chaos of today’s world.

Hope. This is what Isbell’s album comes down to. There’s joy in hope, and there’s pain in hope, like the way that Isbell’s voice simultaneously makes me want to cry and comforts me.

Last fall, I missed a chance to see Isbell live at a nearby show. I didn’t want to miss my friend’s birthday party. When my birthday came around, that friend didn’t show up. I wish that I’d been able to see Isbell live, and I hope that the stars will align so that I’ll be able to soon. Still, I don’t regret missing that concert.

Listening to Isbell’s music–letting both the love and the pain ebb in my chest– is enough. –Sage Marshall


Sage Marshall '19 studies English at Wesleyan University. He is co-founder and editor of Reverberations. Follow him on Twitter @Sagafanta.