My first exposure to Jason Isbell came through Drive-By Truckers. In a band with so many strong voices, it was a while before I started to notice the individuals and the different reasons I liked each. While Patterson Hood has a distinct voice of experience and that outlaw wink that is a part of all the best American country musicians, it was the voice and lyrics of Jason Isbell that first struck me as the most world weary, the most filled with wrong side of the tracks redemption, and the most tragically reflective. So the first time I saw what these Drive-By Tuckerslooked like, I was blown away to see those road worn lyrics come from such a fresh, baby faced dude.
Never Gonna Change from the Driveby Truckers 2005 album The Dirty South might be my favourite of all their songs. It’s an amazing tale of trying to escape the white trash roots of a world that’s, “Mean and strong like liquor, mean and strong like fear. Strong like the people from South Alabama, mean like the people from here”. Lyrics rarely impress me or contribute to what makes me like a song, but the story of Never Gonna Change demands my full attention every time I hear it. To think that Isbell was all of 23 or 24 when he wrote it, only makes it that much more impressive.
When he left the Truckers, I was really bummed. Then I heard his solo album Sirens of the Ditch and realised that as long as he was still making music, in any capacity, that was more than enough. I know this is a crazy long intro before even mentioning the album this is supposed to be a review of, but all of that is to highlight the high expectations I had for Southeastern.
This album might be backed by a full band on most tracks, but every single song comes down to Isbell, his voice and his guitar. While the band and backing vocals of a song like Stockholm all work to highlight Isbell and his lyrics, he also knows when to pull back. Something like Elephant, the story of a someone’s battle with cancer, only sounds louder and harder to ignore when it’s nothing more than Isbell, his voice and his guitar.
Songs That She Sang in the Shower shows Isbell’s not afraid to attempt something a little grander, a little more ostentatious, a little more ambitious, musically, vocally, production wise. It also shows that he more than has what it takes to pull it off. It also woks to make something like the flat out, boot kickin’ country rock of Super 8 stand out that much more.
Even now, Isbell is still only entering his mid thirties, and like all his work that’s come before, everything about Southeastern sounds like the work of someone much, much older, but in all the best ways. Lyrically, the stories he tells seem like he’s experienced more in three and half decades than most people do in a lifetime. Musically, it’s got the (fully earned) confidence of someone who knows these stories need to be told. The only downside to this is that the same southern drawl and seen-it-all tone that give his words such gravitas, are probably the exact same things that turn a lot of people off, scared they might be about to hear country music, in all the negative connotations of the phrase.
But if I can’t convince you to listen to this album, Marc Maron’s awesome interview with Jason Isbell should do the trick.