Best of 2013 Closeup: Jason Isbell - "Southeastern" (Album Review)

My daddy told me and I believe he told me true
The right thing's always the hardest thing to do

Indeed, it's not easy to change your life. Whether you're changing away from addiction, toward an illness your body can't fight, into the welcoming arms of someone who truly loves you (and, consequently, away from all the forces that just keep you around to validate them), and so on. It's complicated and full of layers. Like turning your head - it's not just your head you're turning. It's the skin around your head, the muscles, the tendons and cartilage and bone and fluid beneath. Everything moves and changes together, and the way it ripples out can be anything from revelatory to heartbreaking to invigorating or impossibly painful. 

The fact that Jason Isbell wrote songs for every layer of change on this album - and nailed every complex, loaded idea and emotion to such an extent that it hurts to hear some of it - is what makes this album so completely stunning.  

Much has been made about Isbell's sobriety. No doubt it is hard fought and hard won, and there are songs on this album where he clearly works out some of the pain he caused his friends and loved ones - and, often most startlingly, honestly - himself. Those songs ("Cover Me Up," in particular) are not aimed at conjuring up sympathy or even really apologizing. They're just stark, direct emotion; the musical equivalent of a good, hard look in the mirror. The kind where you start to see your pores and where your skin is discolored. Not judgmental, just a sort of stark presence, a recognition of what's really there. 

I wonder who she pines for on the nights I'm not around
Could it be the man who did the things I'm living down

But there are other songs, too. "Elephant" is probably the best song I've heard on any album this year, next to probably Patty Griffin's "Go Wherever You Want to Go". Both wrestle with death and all its impossible emotions, choosing release over all other ways one might cope. Isbell's song encapsulates a very small amount of time - sitting, drinking with a friend who's dying of cancer. The man in the song thinks through all the myriad ways of deepening the connection before this woman is dead and gone, before determining to let her have a few moments where her disease and death aren't in the center of the picture. It's a song about putting someone else first with all your might, the most urgent kind of compassion. It's not a feat of heroism, granted. It's the sort of thing we all do, or would do if faced with that kind of moment. But Isbell's deep journey into the occasional blessing of avoidance sheds light on the beautiful humanity, how we determine to treat one another when it matters. 

Lifting little moments like this one to the level of notoriety a song that takes itself seriously can bestow, is not something that just any songwriter could accomplish. In fact, listening through most of the other great albums of the year, it's something almost nobody else is either capable of or they simply fell short this year. It's all too easy to write about one's pain, the pain we see around us. Someone with an open channel between their mind and their language might just sit down and let it flow. But the ability to shape those observations - about the world around us, but especially about onesself - into something  that is at once beautiful, simple, direct, and compelling, is an extraordinary and rare gift that Isbell wields conscientiously.

So, it goes almost without saying that this is the finest album of Isbell's career so far, but it's excellent enough that it indicates it's not all he has to give. The songs are so good, they lead you forward to wait for what Isbell might pull off next. Without question, the best collection of music I heard this year.

Views: 4210

Comment by Kelly McCartney on December 17, 2013 at 8:56am

While not at all surprising, I totally agree with you on all points. It's stop-you-in-your-tracks good.

Comment by Gary Burnett on December 19, 2013 at 3:22pm
Nice review. Wonderful album. For me the best American of the year
Comment by Hal Bogerd on December 19, 2013 at 6:19pm

I saw Jason live several years ago. A great rock show but I remember wondering, as the band swigged/chugged liquor from a bottle on stage, how long they could keep it up. Fortunately, this is the happy ending (at least for Jason). 

Comment by Mike Hopkins on December 19, 2013 at 6:26pm

Excellent write-up.  I had always felt like his solo albums just fell short of greatness, but this one is brilliant from start to finish.

Comment by Steve Ford on December 19, 2013 at 7:19pm

Another great review, Kim. Best album of 2013, no contest.

Comment by Mark Cunningham on December 19, 2013 at 8:19pm

This album is so damn good. That is all. 

Comment by Paul K Goode on December 20, 2013 at 5:05am

Album of the year, hands down.

Comment by Sam Andersen on December 20, 2013 at 6:22am

Agreed

Comment by Michael on December 20, 2013 at 6:48am

Great piece. Hands down the best album of the year. I love what Buddy Miller says to Jason in that PBS show. After Jason does Cover Me Up, Buddy says "I could listen to that song all day." As always, Buddy nailed it. Saw them do a free show at Lincoln Center this summer and they were incredible.

Comment by Patressa Kearns on December 20, 2013 at 7:01am

I love this album, too, and appreciate your sentiments. I don't think it's the best album of the year (I think Tim and Darrell's "Memories and Moments" is that), but it sure is a stunner. Good for Isbell, beating his addiction. A gift for us all!

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.