Reviewed by Jane Roser
I was more excited than a cat eyeing a chenille sofa when asked to review this album. The Drive-By Truckers, the band that Jason Isbell spent six years playing with before he left to start a solo career, is one of my favorite bands ever and Isbell, to me, is one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of our generation. He’s what John Prine was to the music industry 40 years ago. That may be a lofty statement, but that’s okay because I’m a Sagittarius and we don’t fib.
Released today via Southeaster Records/Thirty Tigers, Southeastern is Isbell’s most personal album to date. Pared down to simple acoustics and without his band the 400 Unit accompanying, the 12 tracks, according to his press release “emanate self reflection, repentance and personal growth.” Recorded in Nashville, with Jason’s wife, the incredible Amanda Shires guesting on vocals and fiddle and produced by Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, the Secret Sisters), Isbell has an innate gift for taking a depressing event or situation and looking for the good in it. When discussing his north Alabama childhood in Barr Weissman’s DBT documentary The Secret To A Happy Ending, Isbell muses “We didn’t have an enormous amount of things, but I never felt that I was doing without anything. It’s like, you know, we’re in a trailer, but hey! We’re in a trailer-it’s great! It’s not raining on my head!” Because the quickest way to feel rich is to figure out what you can do without.
“Cover Me Up”, the first tune on this album, gave me shivers when I heard it. The lyrics are so beautiful and full of pathos and emotion- “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time.” It speaks of how he gave up the bottle and grounded himself. I mean, the best way to break a bad habit is just to drop it and then, in most musician’s case, write a song about it. But Isbell ain’t most musicians. No sir. The genius behind such DBT songs as “Outfit” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” is so much more and touches everyone he meets and who listen to his songs. One reviewer on iTunes put it like this “If his songs don’t move you, then you ain’t got a heart.”
“Stockholm” is a rollicking number, but also very sad, speaking of missing your loved one whilst stuck in a city of cold, hard rock. “I’ve heard love songs make a Georgia man cry on the shoulder of somebody’s Saturday night. Read the good book, studied it, too, but nothing prepared me for living with you.” I love that. Mostly because I am a southern gal who spent four years living in Europe as a kid and as much as I enjoyed it, you sure do miss the warmth of home- grandma’s fried chicken, sweet potato pie and sitting in a living room in Georgia while grandma plays Dixie on her harmonica. I totally get it.
“Elephant” hit oh so close to home for me. I had to listen to it a few times in a row and then read the lyrics, digesting every word. I was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago and this song verbalizes my feelings at the time. Cancer is always the elephant in the room. It’s also an asshole. Making jokes, ignoring the situation, hoping it’ll go away on it’s own, that’s how you (mostly) deal with it. Isbell understands every aspect of the human condition and paints a detailed picture using wisdom beyond his years.
“Super 8” is a way cool, superfly song. I guess Isbell must have stayed at a crappy Super 8 once. Okay, that goes without saying. I’d also say that’s quite a random thing to write a song about, but you have to remember, this comes from the guy who once tweeted “Just thought to myself, “Why did I wake up with the Simon & Simon theme stuck in my head?” Then I thought, “Because I am a very lucky man.” This song rocks out and is hilariously funny with lyrics such as “If I ever get back to Bristol, I’m better off sleeping in the county jail. I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel.” Seriously, ME neither!
Isbell is a witty, sensitive soul and charming to boot. He has the wonderful support of his wife, fellow musicians, fans and his manager Thirty Tigers’ Traci Thomas (who is so awesome, by the way! I met Traci at Wes and Jyl Freed’s house a few years ago on Halloween and we had a grand ol’ time looking through Wes’ DBT prints and watching him feed the albino squirrel in the backyard. Good times).
A few years ago I helped Barr Weissman at the theater in his home town of Takoma Park, Maryland where he screened his film The Secret To A Happy Ending. Last week I asked Barr what his fondest memory of Jason was while making this film. “The first word that comes to mind when I think of Jason Isbell is smart. He is a man who is without guile — he is who he is. And who he is is smart and funny and wise and talented and courageous. It is no accident that he was part of the most awesome triumvirate of songwriters ever assembled in a single band. The wisdom, wit and just plain “getting it” present (although in their own unique ways) in the songs of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley is there in Jason Isbell. During filming I asked Jason how he wrote a song like “Danko/Manuel?” (I was blown away by how someone so young could write a song so poetic and wise). He answered “I wish I knew, cos I’d be writing another one right now.” And I am still incredibly fond of how Jason describes his early days with DBT in the film, “There were a lot of things I had never seen before… and they were filthy and dirty and mean and miserable and wonderful.” Amen.