Album Review: Southeastern by Jason Isbell
When he joined the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell seemed like the new hero of Americana songwriting, besting even old heavyweights like Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood with songs like “Outfit,” which was probably one of the best songs of the decade. By the time he left the band, he seemed like his career would be one of those “what-ifs,” about whom the few who remember occasionally reflect on what could have been. Compared with his Trucker output, 2007′s Sirens of the Ditch seemed feeble, as did 2009′s Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit in 2009. Last year’s Live from Alabama brought some songs that had previously sounded still-born to life, but the new-found energy was as much a result of the performance as the writing.
All of which makes Southeastern, released on June 11, as much revelation as resurrection, showing Isbell risen from the dead and introducing us to his post-DBT self as if for the first time–because here again is the guy who can bring devastatingly concrete details together to create universal truths as he’d done on his best work.
“You’re better than your past,” the song “Elephant,” one the the best on the album, begins as the narrator drinks with a woman at a bar. At first we think she’s just too drunk when he sings, “If I’d fucked her before she got sick/ I’d never hear the end of it/ She don’t have the spirit for that now,” but as he continues with the quiet desperation of a man who wants to help this woman with “sharecropper eyes” and her hair all gone, we realize she has cancer and is dying while all he can do is “sing her classic country songs and she’d get high and sing along,” burning the “joints in effigy” and trying to ignore the titular elephant.
The driving rocker “Super 8″ leads off with “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well/ if I ever get back to Bristol/ I’m better sleeping in a county jail.” But it is the diversity of melody and range that Isbell has also recovered. This is not one of those country albums where every song blends together, though in theme many do address the year’s Isbell lost to drunkenness (he is newly sober). But he doesn’t come across, as the last song “Relatively Easy” puts it like “a brother on a church-kick [which] seems like just a different kind of dope sick” that will wear off with the next bender. Instead, with these new songs, Isbell now seems like the kind of country singer who is built to last. Nobody holds a mediocre record or two against Willie or Merle, because they always come back strong. Southeastern puts Isbell in that class.