Jason Isbell – “Elephant”
1. It is easy to write about death and be poignant — mortality tends to bring that along each time you mention it in a song. It is difficult to to write about death and be nuanced, personal, and even humorous about it. Jason Isbell manages to write with all three of these with ease on “Elephant”, from his latest record Southeastern. None of this comes with any surprise — Isbell brought these to his time with the Drive By Truckers and in solo songs like “Dress Blues”. The thing that brings this song to life (besides its wonderfully jarring profanity) is the story it tells, the production, and how they work together with Isbell’s voice to present what might be his most complete song yet.
2. The narrator picks up in mid-conversation, with his companion offering words of encouragement as he notes how she sits. He sketches around the details of the relationship, as he plays the dutiful caretaker, though sex is not far from his mind. He quickly notes his consciousness of the reaction if they slept together, pushing it right up against the fact that she suffers from an illness — with the implication that it is terminal. This casts the relationship in a whole new light — they serve to keep each other from addressing the real problem. Little details about her peek out — drinking alcohol from a mug, “sharecropper eyes”, and distance from her own family.
3. The turn comes when the narrator mentions that he has “buried her a thousand times” — is she real? Is “she” the alcoholism itself? Is Isbell the narrator? In the end, it doesn’t really make a difference either way — but being able to view this song through so many layers shows the intricacy with which it was written. I can’t help thinking of Ryan Adams‘ Gold record, with its songs about Carrie Hamilton addressing the same topic of death. Adams and Isbell toured together in 2012, and this song (and record) show that Isbell was paying attention. Great songs make you feel all kinds of emotions — and this is no different. Put another feather in Isbell’s cap on his steady rise to the top.
More from The Song Survives: