(Sigh) I could listen to this stuff all day. Seriously.
It has to be hard for singer/songwriter Jason Isbell to keep being referred to as “that guy from Drive-By Truckers” (a band he left seven years ago). Two albums under the moniker Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit have helped build a modest reputation for their Muscle Shoals-tinged Americana vibe, but in my own opinion Isbell has remained fairly underrated for the talent he is.
With Isbell’s latest, a solo effort simply titled Southeastern, all of that is set to change. Simple, sparse production and extremely solid songs carried by Isbell’s raspy voice easily make this the album of his career.
Great songs come from life, and Isbell’s has been more colorful than most. With a new wife and now sober, one would assume he’d have headed down the path of Alanis Morissette and Rod Stewart and written songs about the happy times. Instead, Jason Isbell digs into the darker places of his soul—and his past—for the raw material in his songs. “Raw” being the operative word.
Of course, folk music revolves around stories, and Isbell proves himself a master storyteller with songs like “Elephant,” a devastating song about trying to live a normal life with someone suffering from cancer, or “Live Oak,” a ballad of a criminal whose past is uncovered. Still, the most poignant moments are the ones that seem to come from personal experience. Regret-laden references to substance abuse are prevalent throughout his lyrics. In the sorrowful “Traveling Alone”, Isbell laments, “So high the street girls wouldn’t take my pay / Said, ‘Come see me on a better day’ / She just danced away,” while the tongue-in-cheek “Super 8” (which sounds so southern-rocky it seems out of place on this record) takes a humorous look at the not-so-glamorous aftermath of a night of partying when the maids discover the singer nearly comatose: “They slapped me back to life and they telephoned my wife / And they filled me full of Pedialite / Saw my guts and my glory, it would make a great story / If I ever could remember it right.” And yet, there are glimmers of redemption as well, almost as if Isbell knows he has to bring us into the darkness with him in order to show us the light: Check this lyric from “Different Days,” for example: “Ten years ago I might have stuck around another night / And used her in a thousand different ways / But those were different days.”
Whether the stories are personal or fabricated–beyond the musicality of the record, and beyond Jason Isbell’s brash and sometimes searing vocals, the real treasure of Southeastern is the poetry of Isbell’s lyrics. Simply some of the most masterful songwriting I’ve heard in some time, both emotional and inspiring. That’s why I can listen to this all day. That’s why you will, too. This record marks a high point in Jason Isbell’s career; I doubt he will be underrated much longer.