Jason Isbell

Southeastern Records, 2013

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


What makes a great album?

First are the songs, which have to reach deep inside and tell truths that not only resonate with, but stir, maybe even haunt the listener. Then you need a band with just the right feel, and a producer who understands how to bring out the best in the music. And then, because this is an album, you have to sequence the songs for optimum impact and flow. From the moment the first note arrives, you’re telling two stories at once—the story within the song, and the story of the album.

Jason Isbell’s Southeastern is a great album.

It’s great in part because it’s transformational, illustrating the precise moment Alabama-born Americana artist Isbell went from a good ol’ boy with a heap of talent to a man on a mission; from a solid writer/player/singer to one of the most honest and authentic voices of our time; from a dangerously self-destructive young drunk to a clear-eyed, open-hearted man with everything to live for and everything to lose. Much more than a collection of songs and stories; Southeastern chronicles two critical turning points in Isbell’s life: falling in love with his partner-then-wife Amanda Shires, and getting sober.

Another thing that makes Southeastern great is the way it breaks the rules. Rather than opening big and easing his way back to a ballad around track three or four, Isbell opens small but fierce, with an acoustic love song for the ages. “Cover Me Up” is spare and raw and poetic and self-lacerating—“A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun you can’t trust anyone / I was so sure what I needed was more, tried to shoot out the sun”—and then celebratory of the very essence of love: empathy and passion and perseverance. “Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond on high / But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever, this time / And the old lovers sing ‘I thought it’d be me who helped him get home’ / But home was a dream, one I’d never seen till you came along.” The entire lyric is brilliant, but equally important is the way Isbell sings it: like his life depends on it. There’s a deep ache in his voice—from the pain that he tried to numb, and for the love that he’s found to at least partially fill in that hole. This song reminds me of a coyote howling at the moon, that sense of desperate longing that can only be eased by the company of a mate.

The big number you might have expected up front arrives second with the celebratory “Stockholm,” muscular electric guitars framing a road song about missing the home he’s just found. “Once a wise man in the ways of the world / Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl… Stockholm, let me go home.” Framing a similar message in a fresh context, the acoustic “Traveling Alone” is Isbell remembering the life he left for the life he now wants to lead. “Damn near strangled by my appetite / In Ybor City on a Friday night / Couldn’t even stand upright / So high, the street girls wouldn’t take my pay / She said come see me on a better day… I’ve grown tired of traveling alone / Won’t you ride with me?” You can hear the weariness in his voice as he sings these lines. You don’t want to say that if it weren’t for Shires he’d be dead, but it doesn’t seem out of the question either: “Heart like a rebuilt part / I don’t know how much it’s got left.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Dancing like a prizefighter, in the spot you might be expecting another love ballad, Isbell places “Elephant,” one of the most brutal, moving, honest story-songs he (or anyone) has ever written. A riveting lament about a barfly standing by and supporting a female drinking buddy who’s dying of cancer, every line here feels bracingly real, shaded with anguish and black humor, full of human frailty and implicit acknowledgment of the impossibility of comforting someone who knows they’re dying. “She said ‘Andy, you’re taking me home,’ / But I knew she planned to sleep alone / I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from the floor.” A crushingly good song.

Next up, “Flying Over Water” delivers an observant, churning rocker about a pair of troubled lovers on the run from their own connection: “From the sky we look so organized and brave… I can’t for the life of me say why / Did we leave our love behind.” Closing out a tremendous first half, the chiming, sweetly melodic “Different Days” offers a thoughtful reflection on maturity, looking back at how he might have handled things 10 years ago, but those were different days. 

The second half speaks to the wisdom of the sequencing in the sense that the strongest numbers are all up front, but the rest are no slouches either. The spare country-blues “Live Oak” is another tale of transformation: “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.” The one base left uncovered until now—a breakup song—is addressed by the lilting, mournful “Songs That She Sang In The Shower.” Then the tender thoughtfulness of “Different Days” returns in “New South Wales,” a loping, impressionistic acoustic number with references to cocaine and tequila that suggest it’s about the voyage to sobriety.

If it feels like maybe you could use a laugh about now, here it comes. “Super 8” is a rollicking-good country-fried road song with blazing guitar licks, a lyric that stacks punchlines end on end, and a gang-vocals-singalong chorus: “Don’t want to die in a Super 8 motel / Just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well.” It’s just the cleansing breath you need to get to the end of an album this intense, and still a concert staple today. Another outlier follows, the spooky, sharply realized “Yvette,” a blues ballad about a young man who’s worked himself up to kill his crush’s abusive father.

Closer “Relatively Easy” presents a series of vignettes illustrating how suffering is relative; no matter how bad you may feel in this moment, there’s always someone who has it worse. It also features this beautifully rendered image as Isbell eulogizes a fallen friend: “Remember him when he was still a proud man / A vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand / Nothing but the blue sky in his eyes.” That triplet alone is worth the price of admission.

Throughout, Isbell, who handles all the guitars here, benefits from the expert support of 400 Unit stalwarts Chad Gamble on drums and Derry Deborja on keys, with Brian Allen sitting in on bass and occasional guest harmonies from both Shires (one song) and Kim Richey (two). Dave Cobb produces with a light but expert hand, helping to polish these songs to the perfect understated shine.

Like most great albums, Southeastern is both deeply personal and grounded in a powerful sense of place and time. This is an album about life in the Southeastern part of the United States in the early 21st century—mostly one specific man’s life, flaws, fears, and ferocious determination to do better, recounted with unflinching honesty. It was a milestone for Isbell as a songwriter, and, if you ask me, also for Americana as a genre.

Rating: A

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