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Jason Isbell and Rodney Crowell stretch their boundaries on two new albums


This is FRESH AIR. Singer-songwriters Jason Isbell and Rodney Crowell have new albums. And our rock critic Ken Tucker thinks comparing the two can help explain the excellence of each. Isbell's album with his band The 400 Unit is called "Weathervanes." Crowell's album, recorded with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy as producer, is called "The Chicago Sessions." Ken says they represent two generations of performers stretching the boundaries of their musical genre to express tough-minded personal revelations.


JASON ISBELL: (Singing) Are you looking to be alone, or can I sit with you while? I don't want to be a stranger anymore, and you won't even have to smile. We can talk about the rain.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Both Jason Isbell and Rodney Crowell are literary-minded Southerners - Isbell from Alabama, Crowell from Texas - who wear their bookish influences lightly. They made their reputations on vivid metaphors and autobiography a listener can recognize as universal. Their new albums avoid the slickness that polished singer-songwriters can fall into. Isbell, for example, is very consciously scuffing up the polish in his writing to give it a roughness that's energetic and eloquent.


ISBELL: (Singing) Baby, how'd you end up here in a Texas town in a wedding gown with a new beer? Baby, how'd you go so wrong when you don't belong, but I bet they all think you're sincere? I know it since your eyes are blue, and I'd die before I'd lie to you. And this ain't it, baby. This ain't it, baby. Lord knows I like to roll the dice, and I don't give the best advice, but this ain't it, baby. This ain't it, baby. Remember when you fell so hard...

TUCKER: Isbell's album "Weathervanes" features songs about school shootings and opioid addiction, but he roots his anguish in a kind of stubborn optimism that better times are possible if we each connect with people to affect collective changes. This sense of responsibility shines through on one of the best songs here, "Middle Of The Morning."


ISBELL: (Singing) Well, I tried to open up my window and let the light come in. I step outside in the middle of the morning and in the evening again. Yes, I tried to be grateful for my devils and call them by their names. But I'm tired by the middle of the morning. I need someone to blame. I know you're scared of me.

TUCKER: Where Isbell's "Weathervanes" sounds like a new attempt to describe the world around him with unsentimental honesty and precision, Crowell's "Chicago Sessions" sounds like an old pro who's realized he has a few more hard-won life lessons to share. Crowell released his debut album in 1978, a year before Jason Isbell was born. Nevertheless, there's a youthful lilt in his voice when he swoops into the chorus of a beautiful song such as "Loving You Is The Only Way To Fly."


RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) Can't find the strength to stand alone, can't seem to find my way back home. I fell so far, so deep - can't eat, can't breathe, can't sleep, which all comes down to one more round of me, myself and I. Loving you is the only way to fly. Loving you is the only way to fly.

TUCKER: The harmony vocal there is from co-writer Sarah Buxton. You can never tell at what moment in a career a musician will strike a new vein of inspiration. But this is one of those moments for Rodney Crowell. He's made one of the most open, least self-conscious albums of his career, recording songs full of generosity and gratitude toward the people in his life.


CROWELL: (Singing) Old wounds from God only knows when. Doing us both in is a hard way to go. And here's what I know. You're supposed to be feeling good now. Everybody said you were. Did you ever wonder why? It all comes down to one big lie. You're supposed to be in your prime now. You're not supposed to be wasting your time feeling like you're down and out over someone like me. Soulmate...

TUCKER: While they compose lyrics like folk songwriters and fill out their melodies like rock 'n' rollers, Isbell and Crowell are both Americana guys in two senses. Americana is the commercial genre they slot into most comfortably, and their subjects are classically American, about embracing small-D democratic notions of both independence and community. In their separate ways, these new albums offer fresh examples of what we all have in common, of what unites us.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed two albums by Rodney Crowell and Jason Isbell.


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MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our senior producer today is Therese Madden. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF JACK ROSE'S "KENSINGTON BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.