Jason Isbell


Written by: TL on 27/02/2014 11:19:06

Alabama songwriter Jason Isbell first blipped on my radar when I saw him supporting modern country's mega star Ryan Adams a few years back. I thought then that the man had brought along compelling songs and an easy charm that rivalled the headliner's own, yet stuck even more traditionally to American folk traditions, and afterwards I somehow forgot about him until last year, when his fourth album "Southeastern" started popping up in praising mentions around the internet and from there it was only a short distance to listening and finally deciding that this was one worth writing about, especially considering that Isbell was just booked to play at this year's Roskilde Festival.

Make no mistake however, "Southeastern" is a country record with little stylistic twists to mention, adhering one hundred percent to the moods, tempi and traditions of the genre. In terms of composition it could likely have come out in 1984 as well as in 2014 and while this might sound like a drawback, it absolutely isn't, simply because Isbell is as good a songwriter as he is. Instead the conservative approach somehow seems completely justified as Isbell unwinds his compelling narratives, which have more grit and honesty in them than you might think.

Overall "Southeastern" casts Isbell as a man with a few skeletons in his closet and with pieces of broken hearts rusting in his footprints. You understand why already in opener "Cover Me Up", in which a regretful vulnerability is employed to seduce someone to crawl up under the covers with the singer to stay the whole winter. Soon however, the album progresses to show a certain road-weariness and a willingness on Isbell's part to give up his rascal ways and settle down. "Girl leave your dress by the bed we ain't leaving this room" he sings in "Cover Me Up", but already in "Stockholm" a "wise man to the ways of the world" wants to "trade in those lessons for faith in a girl" and there's a straight up invitation to companionship in "Traveling Alone".

The most charming aspect to these however, is that despite Isbell's proclamations here, you get the hint of a feeling like he's an unsafe bet - like he might change his mind and head for the hills at any point, simply because it's ingrained in who he is. This is contrasted well however, in moments that feel more strikingly genuine. "Songs That She Sang In The Shower" is a great example of this, opening with a memorable acoustic riff and a verse about getting into a fight that helped end the relationship the chorus reminisces about. "Elephant" is the pick of the litter however, as it accompanies a friend as she slowly dies of cancer. The hints of eroticism that sneak into both "Songs That She Sang.." and "Elephant" only lend them a further fucked up believability, and the latter's narrative is particularly heartbreaking:

"She said Andy you're taking me home

But I knew she planned to sleep alone

I'd carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from her floor

- If I'd fucked her before she got sick

I'd never hear the end of it

But she don't have the spirit for that now"


"If there's one thing that's real clear to me

noone dies with dignity,

we just try to ignore the elephant somehow"

It would make for a scarring highlight to an excellent record if it wasn't for the clear dropoff towards the end. The hick country-rock of "Super 8" however is simply too grating and hokey at track ten to not force an unpleasant grimace to my face and send me reaching for the skip button. And while "Yvette" and "Relatively Easy" settle back down in the record's familiar, mellow atmosphere instantly afterwards, neither song seems as balanced or as poignant as the nine first ones, sadly making for a somewhat ordinary closing to an otherwise extraordinary songwriting effort. That said however, if you think you can wrap your head around something as old-fashioned as an unashamed country record, then "Southeastern" has a salvo of nine uninterrupted shots for you that I heartily recommend.


Download: Cover Me Up, Elephant, Songs That She Sang In The Shower
For The Fans Of: Ryan Adams, PJ Bond, Justin Townes Earle
Listen: facebook.com/jasonisbellmusic

Release Date 11.06.2013
Southeasern Records

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