Songs You Should Know: Jason Isbell – “Children of Children”

In May of 2015, Village Voice writer Hilary Hughes called the coming summer, “The Summer of Jason Isbell.” If that’s what the summer of 2015 was, then I’m not sure what we’re going to call the summer of 2016. Since then, Isbell has seen his greatest commercial and critical success with his latest LP, Something More than Free. Its first two singles, “24 Frames” and “The Life You Chose,” have become ubiquitous on Americana and pop radio. Such ubiquity hasn’t detracted from the poignancy of Isbell’s songwriting, though. He’s gone from troubled young man to pensive dad (on his way to wise old man), and “Children of Children” from Something More than Free sees Isbell ruminating on family life and southern kinship.

At times, Isbell’s tunes are openly autobiographical, like “Cover Me Up” from Southeastern. Or they’re character-driven like his blood-feuding Hills and Lawsons on “Decoration Day” from his Drive-By Trucker days. On “Children of Children,” Isbell works both. He sings of his mother with heart-rending sincerity—“All the years I took from her just by being born,” can stop any mama’s boy in his tracks—but broadens his subject from verse to verse to include you and me and us among his characters.

Isbell drawls nostalgia with each cascading melody, painted more vividly in lyrics recalling sepia photos of families and farms, and dusty winds from the plains. The chorus arrives surreptitiously, over a swaying bassline and thudded bass drum. And so much of this is in service of a “sorry, not sorry” moment of feeling genuine pain for his mother, yet being relieved not being a dad at 17. There’s something of a heritage in being the children of children of children.

The song builds to a caesura. A reverbating snare shot echoes just after Isbell sings that line: “All the years you took from her, just by being born.” Breaking his heart and breaking ours, and breaking with his kin, he was a child of a child, but his children won’t be.

A lengthy guitar solo turns the tune into a southern rock epic. Chad Gamble’s drumming opens to deep, abiding percussion, with each snare strike throbbing in layers of reverb and panoramic cymbal crashes. Isbell’s slide guitar playing owes a stylistic debt to Duane Allman in its resonant, elided lines, in simplicity masked as intricacy. With “Children of Children” Jason Isbell turns a personal statement into a humanized epic.

Learn more at jasonisbell.com.