I’ve read so many hyperbolic reviews of Jason Isbell’s masterpiece Southeastern that I think, were I unaware of him, I would have to doubt them: he’s gained a momentum that’s uncommon for smart, thoughtful songwriters. But of course, I am aware of Jason Isbell: more than aware. His music has been a close companion to me for some time, and it seems like with every record, he becomes a little more lyrically incisive and musically intuitive. Southeastern is, in my opinion, the kind of record that defines a man: I think this is the point in Isbell’s career that music lovers will look back on and recognize as the moment he cemented his place as a writer. This is Townes Van Zandt level good. This is Guy Clark good. This is John Hiatt good. Isbell’s always had it in him (and I think written several songs a record that prove it), but every single track on Southeastern is thought-provoking, interesting, empathetic, and moving. A truly perfect record.
The record starts with “Cover Me Up,” which sounds like a country-tinged Beatles song. It’s got the deliberation and sweetness of “Norwegian Wood,” but with lines that are so personal they are almost hard to listen to. There are moments in this song (and throughout the rest of the record) where I almost want to look away or turn completely inward because the lyrics are so raw: this is one of the most honest love songs I’ve ever heard, and I’m still blown away every time I start the record. It’s rare that a chorus is as good as the verses, but this is one of those exceptions:
So girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room
Until someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up, and know you’re enough to use me for good
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this record without talking about Isbell’s sobriety. He’s quit drinking, it seems like he’s replaced all the bad habits with reflection: he’s married and clearly in love, and he’s looking at the man he used to be with a sharp, honest eye. Lines like, “I put your faith to the test/ When I tore off your dress/ In Richmond, all high/ I sobered up, and I swore off that stuff/ Forever this time” are almost impossible to view through the lens of a fictional narrator. Again, it’s too raw. Isbell has written one of the bravest records I’ve ever heard: it’s hard to pair lines like the above with the earnest declarations of love like the beautiful, “But I made it through/ ‘cos somebody knew/ I was meant for someone.” I spent one whole day refreshing this song when Paste posted it before the record came out– I must have played it fifty or sixty times. And I just wanted to incorporate it into myself. I want to write honest and true like he does.
So by the time my preorder LP came, I was prepared for that to be my favorite song. Of course, that’s a little short-sighted– if you’ve only heard one song on a record, of course it’s your favorite. But I’m not even sure it’s my favorite song on Side A. (My actual favorite is “whichever song is playing, because all of the songs on this record are my favorite”.) I think the song that’s probably blown people away the most is the touching “Elephant”–
This song is the story of a man and a woman, maybe almost-lovers, but definitely friends, navigating through the woman’s cancer diagnosis (the ‘elephant’ in the title). Isbell defines both characters as people who lead normal lives– there’s nothing elevated or elegiac about either character, which seems to make them both so much more worthy of empathy. They are relatable and interesting, and more than that, they are so truthful and heartbreaking:
She said, “Andy, you crack me up,”
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
Sharecropper eyes and her hair almost gone
When she was drunk, she made cancer jokes
She made up her own doctor’s notes
Surrounded by her family, I saw she was dying alone
I’d sing her classic country songs
and she’d get high and sing along
She don’t have much voice to sing with now
The stark details are bone-chilling, and Isbell’s straightforward delivery carries the listener through the song. I’m invested in these people, and even though I know what’s coming, I keep hoping it won’t. The last line– “No one dies with dignity/ We just try to ignore the elephant somehow,” is a line that echoes. I’m not sure I even understand all the ways it resonates with me right now, but I know it is true in the same way that you see a beautiful landscape and know it is true: there is something undeniable about “Elephant.”
I think my favorite song musically is the triumphant “Songs that She Sang in the Shower.” It’s a song about coming to terms with loss, but my God, when he comes into that chorus and sings, “And the songs that she sang in the shower/ Are stuck in my head,” it is transcendent. I haven’t listened to it yet where it didn’t make me smile involuntarily, even though there is quite a bit of sorrow in this song. It’s a weird, nostalgic sorrow– which is always tinged with some kind of happiness. One of those double-edged swords.
I think part of what is effective about this song is the rhythm he establishes early on– two short lines followed by a longer one– and the way the music plays into that. It’s a stunning sound; it’s rolling and peaceful and beautiful. Also, I’m not sure there’s a better first line than, “On a lark/ On a whim/ I said, “There’s two kinds of men in this world, and you’re neither of them.”
Of course, these songs all sound good. A lot of them are pared back and focused, driven in a brave, stripped way. They really emphasize the content, and they score it perfectly. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hard-rocking “Super 8,” the familiar/tragic rock story about musicians who overdose in motels. Hard to ignore, the song actually starts with Isbell’s drawl, “Don’t wanna die/ In a Super 8 Motel,” and though there is a dark sense of humor here, it’s hard to forget that the narrative of a musician dying in a cheap hotel room is one that has played out in real life. But it’s also catchy and memorable: this song has the barroom feel of earlier Isbell songs like “Brand New Kind of Actress,” and, if for whatever reason you were doubting his amazing capacity to be like a country-Van-Halen, this song will renew your faith. Isbell, to be blunt, rocks.
Overall, this record is made up of the most wonderful musical dualities: it is delicate, but the songs (and the writer) are strong; it is beautiful, but it looks boldly at the ugliness and hurt in the world; it is crushing, it is uplifting; it is intense, and yet, it is easy to listen to and love. I think Southeastern speaks to me less as a record, and more like it is a new person in my life– but one who is open, vulnerable, and honest. There are no games, no moments of sleight-of-hand on Southeastern. Every single song is brutally true– and for that reason, incredibly lovely.
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