- Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell is a brilliant observer of the gritty and the real. The scenes he describes often ain’t much to look at (that’s the bitch about honesty sometimes) but his words are beautiful. And they have never been more so than they are on Southeastern, his new solo album.
You’ll hear folks say that “so-and-so lost their edge when they sobered up” in reference to some artist, writer, or musician who got straight. Not so with Jason Isbell. He was laying the tracks for Southeastern down about the time he’d been sober for a year – and the album resounds with a power and clarity that matches (if not surpasses) the best work he’s ever done.
Though there are some plugged-in moments, much of Southeastern is dominated by Isbell and his acoustic guitar. Producer Dave Cobb lets the tunes breathe: there isn’t one more note played than is necessary anywhere on this album. But don’t mistake the mainly-acoustic setting and focused arrangements as lacking power. “Elephant” is just the man and his Martin (with a touch of Derry deBorja’s keys here and there) but it’s a song about cancer that’ll make your soul ache to its core; the violence of “Live Oak” is complicated by the woman who is woven into the story; and “Cover Me Up” is jam-packed with need/want/love and come-clean Isbellisms:
Girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room
‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
Lord, lord, lord … and there’s nothing of the braggart or swaggerer in those words – it’s a statement of fact, uttered by a man looking a woman in the eye.
Kim Richey duets with Isbell on the slow head-shake of “Relatively Easy” and the lonesomeness of “Stockholm”; and Missus Isbell herself – the talented Amanda Shires – applies fiddle and voice to (ironically) “Traveling Alone”.
Elsewhere, “Flying Over Water” probably would have worked as an acoustic number, but the squall of electric guitar that strikes in the song’s final minute isn’t simply a solo – it’s another verse that drives home the song’s emotions. And if you needed proof that Isbell can still make the walls shake with some good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, turn up “Super 8”: growling/chunking/churning guitars snap and bite over a wumpthumping bass line (that would be Brian Allen) and a slambam drumbeat (that would be Chad Gamble) while Isbell sings about a hellmonious honkytonk horrorshow. (Take note that this song alone will probably cause the stock of the company that manufactures Pedialyte to go up a few dozen points.)
Stand back, world – armed with a longstanding songwriting talent and a newfound clarity, Jason Isbell is on a roll. Remember when John Hiatt got a hold on things all those years ago – and the result was Bring The Family ?
Southeastern is that same caliber of masterpiece.
In lieu of Pedialyte the morning after, Brian Robbins used to mix tequila with Gatorade in the old days. Now he resides peacefully at www.brian-robbins.com.