Jason Isbell - Southeastern
Record Label: Southeastern
Release Date: June 13, 2013
It seems as if finally, ten years after first appearing on the radars of music critics as a member of acclaimed Southern Rockers, Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell is finally getting the mainstream acclaim and exposure he deserves. His fourth solo Album Southeastern currently holds a 90 on Metacritic and is receiving praise from The AV Club to Spin and back.
One thing the critics like to point out is the fact that Southeastern is Isbells “Sober Record”. Where in the past he often wrote and performed songs while drunk, the songs gracing Southeastern were written by a newly sober and re-married Isbell, apparently highlighting his new found sobriety. Isbell himself recently said that he hated that image of a “sober record” as his themes or songwriting approach hasn’t changed much.
And it’s true: While Isbell might be sober and happily married now, the characters in his songs remain as down and out and broken as ever. The biggest change if one were to compare Southeastern to his previous efforts, especially his time with the Drive-By Truckers and his first solo outing Sirens of the Ditch, is that he has perfected his craft even further. The songs might sound a little less aggressive and calmer, but the anger and resentment, the sadness still penetrate every note and line of his songs.
The slow and acoustic start of the opener “Cover me up” , displays restraint in the arrangement and gives Isbells voice much room to shine, is one of those to the heart wrenching Americana songs that will touch even the most hardened of man, that have become Jason’s trademark. The songs sets the bar very high for the songs to follow, but will remain but only one of many highlights on the record.
“Traveling Alone” in its arrangement and lyrical theme is reminiscent of “Go it Alone” from Isbells 2011 outing with his 400 Unit, Here we Rest. Thanks to the stellar songwriting, the brilliant lyrics and one very classy violin solo, the song holds his own and proves without a doubt to be one of the best songs in Isbell’s canon. Lyrically the song shows one of the many strengths of Isbells songwriting: Conveying deep and complex feelings and emotions, in a straight forward manner, without much flow of pretense:
I know every town worth passing through / but what good does knowing do with no one to show it to / I've grown tired of traveling alone / Tired of traveling alone
The albums undeniable highlight comes soon after in the form of “Elephant” a simple acoustic song, about watching a friend die. The helplessness, anger, fear and sadness one feels when helplessly watching a loved one die, is chillingly captured in bare bone country song that is made up only of an acoustic guitar and Isbell’s sorrow soaked vocals. Lyrically one of his best and one of the sincerest and truest songs about dying, it sums itself up in the heartbreaking last line:
There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow
One thing that the first four songs make clear is that, while the general approach to songwriting hasn’t changed for Isbell, he is moving further and further away from his Southern Rock past and more and more towards a more Americana/Country soaked future. The closest he comes to his Trucker days is the lovely “Flying over Water”.
With its electric arrangement and driving guitar solo the track is probably the most “rock” song on the album, and maybe because of that also one of the weakest. But being the weakest song on an album filled with modern Americana classics still makes it a damn fine song.
"Live Oak" proves to be another sample of Isbell’s talent for crafting simple acoustic songs that will find their way into the listener’s souls within a heartbeat. The simple song made up of piano, guitars and strings is exactly what you want from a country ballad: a story well told, sung by one of the best singers in the genre.
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 / And I wonder who she’s pining for on nights I’m not around / Could it be the man who did the things I’m living down
What Jason Isbell has done on Southeastern is simply craft one of the best Americana and Country albums of the decade, that stands in stark contrast to most of the music coming out of Nashville and the modern country scene. A collection of 13 heartfelt, sad but still beautiful songs well deserving of the praise they are receiving at the moment. The record shows Isbell at his most personal and once again highlights his remarkable talents that make him one of our generations best songwriters.
Clearly one of the best records of the year.