My adoration for Jason Isbell is no secret. It is rooted in his brilliantly folkloric southern sensibilities. His previous work, particularly his 400 Unit albums, listen like parables of the modern south, utilizing the iconic imagery for anyone below the Mason-Dixon but still reflective of something poignantly personal. While these elements are all present in SOUTHEASTERN, he has never produced a more intimate album. Isbell is confessional and reflective about his struggles with alcohol and cocaine, his reckless youth, and his transformative sobriety. And in typical fashion, he is both direct and allegorical depending on the song or the verse. Melancholy regret and remembrances do not dominate all tracks; there is also a celebration, as Isbell is clearly happy with who he has become- a sober man in love.
For instance, COVER ME UP and TRAVELING ALONE tell the story of someone who has crossed a personal Rubicon inviting hope and happiness into a darkened life. The shadow of that darkened life swirl around the set list as the song LIVE OAK metaphorically discusses the elements of our past that haunt us using the canvas of American outlaw mythology. This track, more than any other, draws obvious parallels with the darker side of American music legend Johnny Cash.
With the metaphor stripped away, YVETTE and SONGS THAT SHE SANG IN THE SHOWER seem to be deeply cutting experiences that expose moments of Isbell's reckless youth. In SONGS, Isbell's lyrical genius weaves a vivid story though the words are Spartan- "On a lark, on a whim, I said there's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them. And his fist cut the smoke. I have an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke." The scene is painted, the brushstrokes few. Then, in the aftermath, a confessional- "In a room by myself. It looks like I'm here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else. So I pace and I pray and I repeat the mantras that might keep me clean for the day."
In SUPER 8, Isbell delivers the carefree, irresponsible country tinged rock and roll songs that harken back to his DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS days. The riches of Isbell's transformation do not only manifest in his lyrics; his wife, Amanda Shires, his obvious anchor in a storm of temptation, is a marked presence on the album. The sweeping violin, played by Shires, transforms the song NEW SOUTH WALES from a story about strangers in a strange land to an authentic English (via Australia) folk ballad. Nowhere is Isbell's gift of intelligence in language, metaphor, and imagery more polished that in STOCKHOLM and ELEPHANT, where he wrestles with falling in love and death respectively. Both songs layer innuendo, meaning and cliché within Isbell's typical narrative clarity. The album is a journey of reflection and change, so the fitting capstone is RELATIVELY EASY. This is the grown-up, sober Isbell seeing the big picture of life. Despite problems, personal demons, loss, and trivial irritations, things for Jason Isbell have become "relatively easy."
I had the opportunity to catch the last show in the first leg of his SOUTHEASTERN album tour in Chattanooga, TN on Saturday night. For those that know the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel and campus, you may know the venue. Nestled in the far back of the tourist hotspot is a former roller rink turned rock venue called Track 29. The large standing room, place was lined with dedicated fans. Isbell is always a stellar live performer with his backing band the 400 Unit (named for The Shoals infamous mental ward).
He is one of the rare performers who sound better and richer live than in the confined and controlled environment of the studio. The most striking aspect of the show was the crowd’s eagerness to sing along and celebrate his new album. Usually, at a show, the attendees all eagerly await the “hits” or a personal favorite. Here, songs that are scarcely a month old were sung in chorus from an adoring crowd as if they were perennial hits. When Isbell’s lyrics took a personal turn and his sobriety was mentioned the entire crowd rejoiced, unprovoked, in support and celebration of his life style change.
During his encore, he took the stage alone and did an acoustic rendition of a favorite from his days in the Drive- By Truckers. The song, TVA, could not have found a more receptive audience, as the Florence born Alabama native praised the Tennessee Valley Authority as a continuing economic and cultural boon created in the depths of the Depression. He was after all playing to a Chattanooga crowd in the very heart of the TVA. The feeling that pulsed through the crowd was almost religious. He and the band closed with a rare cover, the Rolling Stones’ CAN’T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING. The Stones like Isbell are one of rock and rolls greatest gifts, irrevocably tied to the sounds of the Alabama Shoals.
I'll leave this hopefully insightful commentary with perhaps my favorite turn of phrase in an album filled with them. It is indicative of the trials and redemptions related in this masterpiece called SOUTHEASTERN- "A heart on the run keeps a hand on a gun. You can't trust anyone. I was so sure what I needed was more I'd shoot out the sun. Days when we raged, we flew off the page. Such damage was done. But I made through `cause somebody knew I was meant for someone."- COVER ME UP by JASON ISBELL
RECOMMENDED LISTENING- Alabama Pines, TVA, Stockholm, Heart on a String, Decoration Day, Outfit, and the album Live in Alabama by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (2012)
By Dillon Lee
Filmmaker, CHS Theatre Director, Pop Culture Critic-At-Large