In the past week or so there were a handful of notable music videos that emerged from the likes of Simon Doom, Real Estate, American Lips, Jay Som, Andy Shauf, Slow Dancer, Chromatics, TERRY, Sam Mullany, and Andy Gabbard. All of them were entertaining for various reasons and all of them are worthy of repeat viewings. As is always the case, music videos weren’t the only thing finding their way out of the shadows. Songs and records were unveiled but nothing landed with as much impact as Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s “If We Were Vampires”.
Normally, the features on Heartbreaking Bravery are granted to either emerging or off-the-radar artists, musicians as established and widely-celebrated as Isbell pick up enough notices elsewhere. To that effect, something has to be monumentally moving for an artist of that type of stature to earn a feature. “If We Were Vampires” is, unmistakably, one of those pieces. Isbell’s made a habit out of writing those types of numbers, including one of the most devastatingly beautiful songs since the turn of the century in “Cover Me Up“, a heartfelt ode to his wife and collaborator, Amanda Shires, who served as a constant reminder life was worth living.
If “Cover Me Up” centered around the conceit of Shires acting as a necessary rebirth for Isbell, “If We Were Vampires” subverts that narrative and explicitly focuses on how Shires’ presence will either make life unbearable to navigate if she passes first while recognizing that the trade-off will be worthwhile because she’ll have been there up until that point. All of those emotions are magnified considerably when taking into stock the various accounts of how Shires legitimately saved Isbell from a variety of vices that could’ve potentially ended his life. As the best partners tend to do, Shires not only gave Isbell hope but gave him a new lease on life; for Isbell Shires and his very life are inextricably intertwined to a stratospheric degree of intensity.
That love’s something that’s been present throughout his recent work and has been clearly evident in his banter (he nearly reduced an entire crowd to tears at Prospect Park in 2015 just talking about Shires, while she was on hiatus from performing to deliver the couple’s first child). In a recent interview, Isbell mentioned that when he first performed “If We Were Vampires” it was legitimately hard for him to make it to the end and admitted that’s still occasionally the case as Shires watched on with a mixture of pride and genuine understanding. They’d just run through the song and it was impossible not to notice Shires’ loving gaze as the two harmonized carried just a hint of sadness, the chorus’ final line “but one day I’ll be gone or you’ll be gone” likely hitting uncomfortably close to home.
It’s that juxtaposition of life with someone you love that makes dying a more acceptable fate. It’s a heavy concept that Isbell toys with masterfully here, envisioning both himself and Shires as vampires, content to play it cool because they didn’t have to account for that impending destination waiting on some unknown horizon. In the very next stanza, Isbell discards that scenario entirely, surmising that “time running out is a gift” and pledging every last one of his seconds to be offered up in the service of the woman he loves, a woman that both saved his life and gave him a reason to live. It’s earnest, it’s heartfelt, it’s deeply empathetic, and it stands proudly as another heartrending masterpiece from one of our generation’s finest songwriters. Hit play and keep the people you love close enough for them to know they give other people’s lives just a little more meaning.
Listen to “If We Were Vampires” below and pre-order The Nashville Sound here.