Saturday, June 8, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Jason Isbell – Southeastern

It’s taken him four albums (and a VERY GOOD live set), but Jason Isbell has finally stepped out of the shadow of his former comrades in the Drive-By Truckers and made the record of which we always suspected him capable.  2011’s “Here We Rest” was a vast improvement over his first two records which, while spotted with the greatness and specificity of time and place that his best Truckers tunes had, were somewhat lacking.  “Southeastern” finds Isbell working at the top of his estimable powers – the songs are fully formed, the lyrics fitted with an eye for detail and the melodies all top notch.

Much has been made of Isbell’s year-old sobriety and recent marriage, but both seem to have ignited a fire inside him to examine his past behavior and place in this world in a way that is neither facile nor preachy.  It’s tempting to view stark opener “Cover Me Up” as autobiographical – Isbell references the behaviors he’s left behind (and the consequent damage done) and celebrates the newfound love he cherishes, imploring his gal to “leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room / Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom”.  This is a changed man and the humor and pathos he brings to his writing is in stark relief to the glittering generalities of some of his other work.  Best of all is “Elephant”, an account of a woman dying of cancer sung from the voice of her longtime partner that is simply fucking heartbreaking.  This is the best song that Ryan Adams never wrote and it’s a clear high-water mark on an album stuffed with them.

Isbell has never shied away from the personal, but the intimacy of “Southeastern” is paradoxically energizing, giving the material a heft that pulls you in like the best short stories do.  The only thing our society prizes more than watching its heroes stumble is a good redemption tale, and it’s encouraging to see that in addition to getting his personal life together his creative life was reborn as well.  Cozy up and play the hell out of it…

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