Isbell returns to form with ‘Southeastern’

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Sometimes it’s nice to be proven wrong.
I had all but written off Jason Isbell, the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist/singer-songwriter who embarked on a solo career in 2007. During the six years he spent with the Truckers, Isbell, barely out of his teens when he joined, proved himself to be one of the most talented musical artists of his generation—a young man possessed of a parched, weary voice who composed songs with the somber intelligence and dark, compressed detail of the finest southern short story writers.
The quality of the songs Isbell recorded with the band, chief among them “Outfit,” “Decoration Day” and “Danko/Manuel,” is simply astonishing, illustrating an elevated gift for raw, blood-soaked lyricism and unflinching self examination far beyond his years.
Isbell’s guitar skills, equal parts Doc Watson and Duane Allman, simply confirmed his place at the forefront of a new vanguard of songwriters that includes the likes of James McMurtry and Justin Townes Earle.
Unfortunately, as he gained acclaim for his craft, Isbell also acquired a reputation as a mean and frequent drunk, a condition that may have had some bearing on the disappointingly uneven quality of the material he recorded prior to his most recent album, “Southeastern,” released during the summer of 2013.
On too many of the albums he’s recorded since leaving the Truckers and going through a very public divorce with that band’s former bassist, Isbell has seemed like a man fighting against the natural current of his own talent, jumping from one genre to the next in hopes of finding a voice free from his former associations with southern folk and rock music.
Having written two of the finest songs of the 21st century, the aforementioned “Outfit,” and “Decoration Day” within his first two weeks of joining the Truckers and then following up those efforts with songs of nearly equal potency for the band, Isbell seemed to struggle with the weight of expectations as a solo act, unable to carry an entire album or commit to a unified vision for his increasingly mediocre music.
With the release of “Southeastern,” however, all of the setbacks, all the compromises and confused detours, have simply fallen away. “Southeastern” has been hailed as Isbell’s “sober album,” the first set of songs he’s composed since putting down the bottle nearly a year ago. The album is also clearly the work of a man revitalized by love, offering hints of Isbell’s relationship with fellow musician and songwriter Amanda Shires. The two were married shortly after the record was completed.
The strength of the songs at the heart of “Southeastern,” most of them starkly acoustic, confirms Isbell’s return to form in every conceivable way. Album opener “Cover Me Up” sets the tone, offering a portrait of a man giving himself over wholly to a new way of life, a new sense of belonging.
“Days when we raged,
We flew off the page,
Such damage was done,
But I made it through
‘Cause somebody knew
I was meant for someone.”

For all the sense of rebirth present in these songs, the album never soft-pedals Isbell’s all too recent troubles. The specter of prescription drugs, illegal substances and alcohol emerge time and again, chilling reminders of the man’s past and the path he chose to veer from.
“I lost a good friend
Christmas time when folks go off the deep end
His woman took the kids and he took Klonopin
Enough to kill a man of twice his size”

(Relatively Easy)”
In “Travelling Alone,” Shires’ violin shimmers and eddies around Isbell’s vocals, which detail a man at his wits end, physically and emotionally.
“So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay,
They said come see me on a better day,
She just danced away.”

Just as importantly, Isbell doesn’t deny the good times to be had on the road, the drunken nights of half remembered insanity after a particularly satisfying show.
“Well I finally got the room clear,
Bleeding from the left ear,
Feeling pretty bad for the maid,
Lost a couple drinks and my dinner in the sink,
Woke up with the bed still made.”

(Super 8)
“Live Oak” could almost serve as a metaphor for Isbell’s fears about giving up his besotted ways. A singularly haunting minor key ballad about a man whose lover is drawn to him not for his settled present but for his murderous past, the song ends with the narrator stalking off alone, wondering if he’s abandoned the part of himself that others found most enticing.

Though it’s received little press attention, the next to last song on the album, “Yvette,” is one I’ve returned to often. The song uses small details and subtle suggestion to reveal a young man who believes a shy girl from his school is a victim of incest.Throughout the song Isbell takes on the voice of a teenager, a child for all practical purposes, faced with a hideous truth and an even more grotesque decision. As he sits outside the girl’s family home, he loads his rifle and watches the father and daughter through an upstairs window.
“I saw him hold you that way,
He won’t hold you that way anymore, Yvette.”

And then there’s “Elephant,” the black hole centerpiece of “Southeastern.” If a more unflinching or moving examination of a dying friend exists in music, I’ve yet to hear it.
“She said, ‘Andy you crack me up,’
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
Sharecroppers eyes and her hair almost all gone.”

The song’s denouement comes in the form of two chilling, yet thrillingly honest lines:
“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,
No one dies with dignity.”

For months, I hesitated to buy or even listen to any tracks from “Southeastern,” fearing yet another disappointing, depressing effort from an artist that once seemed to hold the secrets of classic country and rock songwriting in his very soul.
Having now listened to the album dozens of times since purchasing it two weeks ago, I can only shake my head in wonder at the sheer stubborn determination and devotion to raw talent that led Isbell to this juncture. Although several of the songs are still far too generic for a man of his talents, Isbell has finally shaken off the miasma of booze and self doubt that had all but crippled him creatively. And make no mistake, when Isbell is on, there is simply no one working within this genre of music that can touch him.
For anyone who has dealt with the heartbreak of loss or the hard truth that even positive change comes at a price, “Southeastern” is proof that true gifts are never truly lost and that life, at least the parts worth remembering, is well worth fighting for.


3 Responses to “Isbell returns to form with ‘Southeastern’”

  1. Love this guy! One of rhe freshest country artist out today. I named “Southeastern” as the country album of 2013. If you want to see what I had to say here is the link. I would love to here your opinion:

  2. Wow. It’s humbling to hear someone sing that beautifully. I’m a recent convert to the Truckers – though Go-Go Boots rapidly became a favourite. Will have to dig into their past a bit more (and get hold of Southeastern. Thanks!

  3. Charles McFeely Says:

    Google got me here almost randomly, but I stayed to read a great piece; a fitting tribute to an astonishingly good record.

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