Jason Isbell – Southeastern

At some point we need to stop talking about Jason Isbell as the “guy from the Drive-By Truckers” and just see his as his own songwriter and musician. I’ll be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of the Truckers, but I am a huge fan of Southeastern. It’s an energizing rock album that, despite focusing on ballads, packs a real punch in lyrics and style. Fans of the blending of rock and country will love this album. It seems right at home in classic American bars.

The opener “Cover Me Up” has a classic country sound. Isbell’s vocals soar honestly and powerfully. He has remarkable ability to be both intimate and substantive. It’s about a difficult relationship, infused with ample southern culture imagery. There’s something about the subtle softness and the powerful attitude that makes it feel just right for a 21st century country tune. What I’d give to hear a song like this on pop country radio…

For what it’s worth, on the MTV Hive stream that I used to write this review, the second track “Stockholm” received the most “hearts.” I think that means people liked or favorited the song. While it’s not my favorite song overall, I see what they like. The two-part male-female harmonies are comfortable and sweet. It’s the kind of song that reminds me of Isbell’s Trucker’s days, lyrically driven and emotional. I might be wrong, but I think the song overall is about a personal identity crisis and the desire to go “home.” It seems he’s conflicted as to what that ultimately means.

While “Traveling Alone” is a pretty straightforward, lyrically simple country song, “Elephant” has a difficult and transcendent message. With a sound reminiscent of something from an Oasis record, Isbell recounts a story of a relationship with a sick woman. “We try to ignore the elephant somehow.” It’s certainly one of the most emotionally-driven songs I’ve ever heard. It’s about death, dying, cancer, and the intersection of those powerful ideas. “We burn these joints in effigy. Try to recall what we used to be. Try to ignore the elephant somehow.” It’s a tough song to take.

“Flying Over Water” is a rock anthem with some interesting southern elements included. Isbell is definitely in touch with his roots, his home, and his heritage. His offhand reference to slavery at the beginning of the song is intriguing. The rest of the song reflects an almost blue collar ethic, again a southern perspective. It’s well-articulated throughout the album.

The acapella beginning on “Live Oak” and the immediately introspective lyrics are stunning. “I found another victim every couple days.” Again making references to poor southern life, Isbell is much deeper than the average country songwriter. This isn’t just quaint turns of phrase for toe-tapping songs. This is a song about being a criminal in a bizarrely confessional sense. The song is about his life after being a criminal, wondering if his lover sees him as he is reformed or as he was a criminal. Wow.

“Super 8” does not sound like it belongs on the album at first blush. It’s a rock ballad that is frankly an obnoxious change of pace from the previous three songs. But what makes it so good and so fitting is that it has a driving country-rock sound befitting a honky-tonk Saturday night. It’s a bit about life on the road, a bit about class, and a bit about storytelling the rough life of a southern rocker. It lightens the mood after the serious love and existential questions in other songs.

“Yvette” was the least-listened-to song according to the SoundCloud stats on the feed I listened to. Of course, I had to know why. It’s immediately softer and more contemplative than the previous song, but I think what made it less popular was its subject. The song is about abuse, identity, and the rough trappings of family. This is definitely not the Billboard top 40 kind of song, but it is the kind that we need to consider.

The final song “Relatively Easy” is a great way to end the album. The song’s structure is a bit of progressive country, but Isbell’s singing really makes it work. “My angry heart beats relatively easy…” seems to be a reflection on life in the United States. He’s highlighting the juxtaposition of “easy life” materially, while American lives tend to be so full of inconsistency and utter violence. It is, again, the kind of stunning songwriting that requires multiple listens.

All told the album is in the same vein as Dawes in terms of lyrical complexity. The themes here are not for all audiences. That said, it’s a real shame Isbell is not lauded on a larger scale because his work is in a clearly advanced class. This is not the kind of music that will be popular on top 40 radio, but it should be. “Cover Me Up” and “Live Oak” are my favorites on the album. All told, this is a serious consideration for country music fans, but may not be the kind of thing that finds widespread appeal among fans of the standard commercial country market. I’d recommend giving at least a few songs a listen before purchasing, but fans of Dawes and other clever songwriters will enjoy this album thoroughly.

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