#458: Southeastern, Jason Isbell
I wasn’t sure who Jason Isbell was, but boy was I excited when I learned who he was. First of all, that Twitter user who set off that “feral hogs” meme? Well, he was responding to Jason Isbell! PLEASE click that link if you don’t know what I’m talking about — I’ve never laughed at the Internet quite so hard. Also, he was in Killers of the Flower Moon?!
This was Isbell’s fourth solo record, but his first real success. And it came on the heels of him getting his life together in a major way: he got sober (after an intervention from Ryan Adams, of all people) and got married, quite literally days after he finished recording this. So that’s what he writes and sings about here: love and sobriety.
Full disclosure: the love songs left me cold. Call me heartless, call me cynical, but I just will never be a fan of a straight, tender love song. “Cover Me Up” is basically his signature song, and it’s objectively beautiful — his voice, his solo acoustic, the lyrics: We ain’t leavin’ this room/ ’Til Percy Priest breaks open wide/ And the river runs through/ And carries this house on the stones like a piece of driftwood. Gorgeous, unexpected — blegh. And the unwavering male/female harmonies on “Stockholm” and “Traveling Alone” are so technically impressive, and extra sweet because he sings them with his wife Amanda Shires! But damn! I just don’t care! Anyway, I consider this a character flaw, and one day I hope to overcome it.
No, this album really started to hit me when I got to his spat of songs about sobriety. Fun fact: Karla Clifton is also sober! And man, some of his lines about it really smacked me in the face, especially on “Different Days”: The ghosts I got high with look a little lost. Maybe the most powerful was “Live Oak,” a song about feeling unsure if people love the new you or are still pining for the old you, because another fun fact: People are so weird to you after you stop drinking! That’s one of the hardest parts about it. And you can really tell that Isbell has been through it on “Super 8,” the heaviest song on here, which makes a drunken night out sound like both a rollicking good time and a literal nightmare. See also “New South Wales” and “Flying Over Water.” His love songs might have left me cold, but these songs made up for it.
And Isbell can also turn his lyrical lens onto other people, something that can be tricky to pull off. But these perspective songs are striking as well. “Elephant” is about a woman dying of cancer, and “Yvette” about a young girl being sexually abused. And on “Relatively Easy,” he asks his listeners to consider points of views other than their own as well. It’s kind of a brilliant move to put that song as the closer, even if it’s not my favorite one.
I feel like women usually have the market cornered on vulnerable, confessional solo albums. There are too many examples to list. So I love that this record, which is all about love and getting clean and having compassion, is by a man from Alabama. No wonder Ryan Adams was intimidated.
Favorite Line: Okay, I know that “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” is about a woman leaving a man who can’t get his shit together. But man, that insult that kicks the song off is so good. I said “There’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.” Absolutely K.O.d.