Jason Isbell – Southeastern
This is an almost perfect album. Touted as a confessional record, it’s supposed to contain a revealing set of songs about how Isbell overcame his alcohol addiction and fell in love with his now wife. There are indeed first-person songs with exactly these themes. ‘Cover Me Up’ sets up the album along these lines, “I sobered up, And swore off that stuff, Forever this time”. ‘Stockholm’ continues the story, “Once a wise man to the ways of the world, Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl”. But what’s great about Southeastern is that these aren’t just a set of intimate, personal songs, they’re songs about simple human relationships. Loving ones, abusive ones, caring ones, murderous ones. They’re stories, but they’re self-reflecting. What happens when you know that you’ve changed, but when you also know that things in your past won’t go away? “There’s a man who walks beside me”, he sings, “It is who I used to be, And I wonder if she sees him, And confuses him with me’. There’s also some lovely black humour: ‘I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them, And as his fist cut the smoke, I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke’. And behind it all, there’s the music. Most of the songs are based around acoustic guitar, plaintive electric guitar and unobtrusive percussion. There’s a fiddle on a couple of tracks, but think Scarlet Rivera not hootenanny. They’re quiet songs, but they’re not sparse. Far from it, they’re lilting, full of fantastic hooks, lovely bridges, and beautiful key changes. The song craft is impeccable. This is a master song-writer at his peak. Only ‘Super 8’ spoils the mood by cranking it up Drive By Truckers-style and feels totally out of place for that reason. Jason Isbell has come a long way. And Southeastern makes it clear that sometimes it’s been a difficult journey. So, what’s next for a sobered-up, newly-wed, former hellraiser? The middle-of-the-road would seem to beckon, but somehow there’s a feeling that Jason Isbell is unlikely to wind up there just yet.