This review comes to us from Ryan Stevenson-Cosgrove:

On May 15th, Jason Isbell followed up his excellent three album streak with the album Reunions. Much of the press ruminated on the unique sort of challenge his past accomplishments present: what is an artist to do after pulling off near perfection three times in a row?

On Reunions the response Isbell offers up is simply not to lean on any past accomplishments. Or anything that might resemble an accomplishment, for that matter. There are no grand ambitions on Reunions. Mostly, this album does not live up to the past three, but that’s not to say it’s not good. It is (very good, in fact!). By good, though, I don’t just mean the quality of the work itself, but, rather, a certain quality of life.

This is where the paradox that is at the heart of this understated album beats loudest. As inveterate doers, we always think it is our job to achieve whatever accomplishment we set our sights on. Reunions, however, evinces another way, and Isbell offers it up on the opening track, “What’ve I Done to Help.” 

The song opens, “What’ve I done to help? What’ve I done to help?” And then Isbell does what he’s so well known for, adding an unexpected line that deepens the stakes of every other one. “Somebody save me,” he pleads. This cry does something interesting by turning the first two lines of the song into a rhetorical question: “What’ve I done to help somebody save me?” Isbell turns out to be asking. The answer, of course, is nothing. None of us do anything to help anyone save us, God or otherwise. Unless getting ourselves in Dutch counts for anything …

What makes Reunions so powerful is a counter-intuitive sort of power. A power that does not look powerful. A power you find at the end of your rope. A power which the Apostle Paul dared to talk about when he said that when he is weak, he is actually strong (2 Cor 12:10b). This is the counter-intuitive power that’s found in the first step of AA, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.” And this is no coincidence. For as important as success is to Isbell’s narrative, the more important part is the sobriety that birthed the stunning vulnerability and depth that made his last three albums so successful. This sort of power found in powerlessness is everywhere present on Reunions. Even the darkest song on the album, “River,” is replete with these images. “The river is my savior,” Isbell sings, “She’s running to the sea / And to reach her destination / is to simply cease to be.”

To release Reunions, Isbell hosted an online concert with his wife, Amanda Shires (an excellent musician in her own right who is also credited with getting Isbell sober). The virtual event turned out to be a sort of invitation to experience this kind of power you only encounter when you have none of your own to offer up. Upon logging on, you were asked if you would like to be seated on the floor or balcony. After making your selection, you were invited to log on to Zoom. During the concert, the footage would cut from Isbell and Shires to fans in the “audience.” It was something to behold. Couples danced in their living rooms, families grilled in their backyards, and folks held up signs: “Hello from Austria!” 

The digital concert turned out to be one of the few digital approximations comparable to the real thing. It was both intimate and communal. A sense of actually participating pervaded the whole affair. This was not just facilitated by the cuts of fans at home. Isbell and Shires helped create this kind of environment by interacting with the audience, candidly reflecting about how odd it was to perform to an empty venue, and even messing up and restarting unapologetically a few times. 

Watching the concert from my front porch on the first warm night of spring was like living in an alternate reality. A reality where instead of trying to fight a virus that thrives by exploiting our movement, we all just stopped. And let me tell you, it felt like I was doing more that night than I had in months. For one night, at least, I helped flatten the curve. And judging by everyone else in the audience, I was not the only one. That night, we all “gathered” around the stage and experienced something we never could have if we had gone out to a concert. We experienced something like the sort of power they say you experience when you confess you are powerless. 

Now, even if you missed the concert, dear reader, worry not because you have a savior who has been singing such a song to you since the foundation of the earth. A song he is singing to you even now. A song you were made to join. 

If your life is upside-down, if it has gone off the rails, you don’t need to do anything to get your Savior’s attention. You already have it. What have you done to help save yourself? That is the kind of Savior he is. He is for the least, lost, last, and little. If you do not believe me, check out the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). It may not seem like much, but it has been reported to be quite a powerful experience. I have even heard it has the power to transcend the reading and take the reader into an event that is actually taking place. 

What else have you got to do? You have nothing to lose. Literally.