CD Review – Jason Isbell “Southeastern”
It’s dark, gritty and personal, and perhaps the clearest glimpse yet into the imagination of a brilliant singer-songwriter who just gets better and better. Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s fourth studio record, listens like a collection of musical short stories. Isbell’s characters speak with clear voices, and generally in first person. In several songs, they bring us face to face with death. There’s Andy, whose woman friend dies of cancer in Elephant. “One thing is clear to me, no one dies with dignity.” There’s a brush with eternity on the lighter side in Super 8, one of the few rockers in this set. Things get a little out of hand for a musician on the road. “Don’t want to die, in a Super 8 Motel – just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well.” Our hero survives, but not until he scares hell out of the girl and a hotel maid. First responders to the rescue: “Well they slapped me back to life, telephoned my wife and filled me full of Pedialyte.” Written like a man who’s been there, done that. Or at least seen it done. In Live Oak, things turn dark, as we find a character with a wicked past burying his woman “so deep she touched the water table line.” And in Yvette, the troubled, obsessive narrator sings that he “might not be a man yet, but your father will never be. I load up my Weatherby, I let out my breath, I couple with death, I couple with death.” Cue haunting guitar and goose bumps.
It’s not all death, but even so, it ain’t all that light. Songs That She Sang In The Shower is about the girlfriend leaving, sick of her man’s shit. The song opens with a smart-ass remark to some guy in a bar, an “eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke,” a fist to the face, and then a steak on his eye as he contemplates life alone. “Experience robs me of hope that she’ll make it back home.” Experience will do that. In Flying Over Water, the man is on the plane with a girl, remembering her taking a fall. “In the heat I saw you rising from the dirt … if only you could tell me then what part of you got hurt.” And there’s that liquor cart. “Maybe we shouldn’t start, but I can’t for the life of me say why.”
Isbell, the poet, is required by his craft to speak the truth, even if it slaps us hard. In Elephant, Andy feels a need to explain why didn’t fuck his sick friend (that’s his word), even though his compassion and companionship prove his love for her in a way mere physicality never could. It’s the way we guys really are, but so often our heroes and villains are one dimensional, either good or bad, at the expense of real. So much easier to digest that way, I suppose, but Isbell gives us the hard truth and makes us like it through his voice, the music, and a few hooks thrown in for good measure. In Different Day, the man is considering a stripper while staring at pictures of runaways. “Ten years ago I might have seen you dancing in a different light, and offered up my help in different ways, but those were different days.” And that old girlfriend he remembers, back when they were together, well he didn’t treat her like a princess. If she gave any trouble, “it was ‘Baby I love you, get off of my goddamn back.'” All this delivered with delicate acoustic sounds, suggesting through their beauty that time can bring a man around, bring him to a place where he rises above his baser self.
Rising above. We liked Isbell just fine before. We liked him as a Trucker, becoming one at a party then taking two days in the band van to learn songs as he joined them on the road. We liked him solo, as he stepped away from that group and put together his coming out record, Sirens of the Ditch. Then two 400 Unit studio records, with the second of those getting notice and recognition from every quarter, including 2012’s Song of the Year at the Americana Music Awards. Since then, he’s toured continuously it seems, including some time on the road with Ryan Adams. He fell in love with singer-songwriter/fiddle player Amanda Shires. He gave up the drink.
The buzz on this album is about the changes in Isbell’s life, and how the music reflects those changes. I have no idea where Isbell is in any of these songs, if at all. Maybe he doesn’t completely understand that himself, but a few of the songs seem to reflect takes on his current situation. Traveling Alone would top that list. This driving song opens with Amanda Shires on the fiddle, then our driver is “fighting second gear” as the snow threatens. “I know every town worth passing through, but what good does knowing do, no one to show it to.” His phrasing on that last evokes the greats, like John Prine in Hello In There, who can say everything with just a few simple words. Amanda Shires sings the chorus with him. “I’ve grown tired of traveling alone, won’t you ride with me?” She is, with her boots on. Or by the bed. In Cover Me Up, another song that made me think of the new couple, Isbell sings, “Girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.”
It really goes past presumption to read too much about the artist into any art. Maybe the artist was having an extraordinary day when he painted that painting, wrote that poem, composed that song. Maybe just the opposite is true. Maybe the line you associate with him is one he overheard on a subway, or maybe it just rhymed in a way that made the song sound good. All that said, the last part of Different Day seems to fit this artist at this time, and seems a fitting way to end this piece:
And the story’s only mine
To live and die with
And the answer’s only mine
To come across.
But the ghosts that I got scared
And I got high with
Look a little lost.
Ten years ago I might
I didn’t have the right
To say the things
An outlaw wouldn’t say
But those were different days.
Southeastern releases on June 11.
Photos by Michael Wilson.
Mando Lines listens to music a lot and writes about it a little. A lot of the little he writes is on Twitter @mando_lines. Jason Isbell is a great follow: @JasonIsbell.