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.