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2023 Albums Thing 176 - Jason Isbell “Southeastern”

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It was my friend Jen from Connecticut who is responsible for my Jason Isbell obsession as it was she who first introduced me to the Drive-By Truckers all those years ago. As each solo Isbell album was released Jen would regale me with tales of going to see him live and be most put out as she raved about each solo album release and I confessed I was less than impressed with whichever release we were discussing. It wasn’t until his next release, “Something More Than Free”, that I fully bought into solo Isbell while Jen was incredulous that I didn’t think “Southeastern” was a masterpiece. I have to confess that I now realise I was wrong and almost all of this album deserves that description, it’s bloody wonderful.

Jason Isbell had been working with Amanda Shires for a number of years. She made her first appearance on an Isbell album on his previous release, “Here We Rest”. From his time in the Drive-By Truckers Isbell had been a heavy drinker of Jack Daniels and an “enthusiastic” Cocaine user. He admits he doesn’t really remember those years in the Truckers, he was usually so drunk or high. In February 2012 Shires, Isbell's manager Traci Thomas, and his friend Ryan Adams executed an intervention which led to Isbell going into rehab and getting sober. He has talked extensively and written about his now sober life, most obviously in the opening song on “Southeastern”, “Cover Me Up” with the line “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, Forever this time” usually eliciting wild cheers at his live shows. It’s not the only time on this album he touches on his addictions and I gotta say, his sober life has improved his music greatly. In February 2013, two days after work was finished on “Southeastern” Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell were married. 

Side one of “Southeastern” is almost faultless. “Cover Me Up”, which I seem to be quickly bypassing, is genuinely one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s arguably not even the best song on the album ! A gentle acoustic strum with Isbell pouring his guts into the performance. Live it is absolutely breathtaking, a quite magnificent song

So, girl, leave your boots by the bed, We ain't leaving this room

'Til someone needs medical help, Or the magnolias bloom

The guitars are broken out on “Stockholm” which seems to reference a specific incident in a specific city, I can only presume involving Isbell and Shires (“Once a wise man to the ways of the world, Now I've traded those lessons for faith in a girl”), with whom he duets this one like Gram and Emmylou. Track 3 “Traveling Alone” has to be about their marriage. Again he admits to his addictions (“So high the street girls wouldn't take my pay, They said come see me on a better day, She just danced away”) but most of the song concerns a realisation that the time has come for him to settle down, or…

I've grown tired of traveling alone, Won't you ride with me?

Cheesy ? Yes, but very, very honest.

As great as both “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone” are this albums undoubted moment amongst moments is “Elephant”. It took me a long time to understand this song, to realise what everyone else seemed to hear in it except me, but once I did, oh brother does it hit hard. It’s the story of a man and a woman, he’s in love with her, she is a livewire, likes to drink, likes to get high but she’s also dying from cancer. She demands he take her home but she’s going to bed alone and he hangs around and sweeps up the hair that is falling out because of her treatment. He sees her surrounded by her family but also sees that she’s dying alone. She makes jokes about cancer when she’s drunk, he sings her classic country songs and they both “Try to ignore the elephant somehow” it’s a beautiful song, so sad but full of love, hope and kindness at the same time, which is a pretty clever thing to pull off.

There's one thing that's real clear to me, No one dies with dignity

We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

We then have to suffer through the utterly forgettable “Flying Over Water” (in digital format it’s one I usually skip, this albums one black mark) before Side one rounds out with “Different Days” a lovely acoustic ballad about times gone by and how the singer has changed since those times.

And the stories only mine to live and die with, And the answers only mine to come across

But the ghost that I got scared and I got high with, Look a little lost

Over on Side 2 “Live Oak” (“There's a man who walks beside me, It is who I used to be, And I wonder if she sees him, And confuses him with me”), ”Songs That She Sang In The Shower”, “New South Wales” and “Super 8” (“I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel, Just because somebody’s evening didn’t go too well” life on the road as an addict) are more confessions of mistakes and regrets. 

“Yvette”, Isbell has said, is a companion song to “Here We Rest”’s “Daisy Mae”, both characters are the product of broken homes and the difficulties that arise from that. “Relatively Easy” (“You should know compared to people on a global scale, Our kind has had it relatively easy”) ends things on a vaguely optimistic note.

I don’t know why suddenly the 400 Unit go missing from the credits, maybe because only three fifths of what we know now as the 400 Unit are on here (Amanda Shires, drummer Chad Gamble and Derry DeBorja on keyboards) but after 2 albums with them it seems a bit sudden to lose them, maybe they just weren’t considered a full band at this point. Whatever the reason, Isbell crafted an almost perfect set of songs (again “Flying Over Water” has no place here) that, granted, took me some years to appreciate fully. The whole record is painfully personal, full of regret and confessional in places. These are songs of, from and about him and his place in the South and among its people. The songs touch on their triumphs, their losses, their miseries, regrets and a fair old bit about Isbell’s hazy past and how he now hopes to live a better life.

From now on a sober Jason Isbell is on an upward path. If you were to start anywhere with Jason Isbell any one of “Southeastern” or the following 2 albums would be the thing to dive into.

Elephant - https://youtu.be/fS8ohtu_LBA

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