Jason Isbell was in St. Louis a few weeks back and I was hoping to go to the show. I told a lot of my friends about the show hoping to gain some interest. Unfortunately, everyone I mentioned the show to had never heard of Isbell, only gaining some sense of familiarity if I told them he used to be in the Drive-By Truckers. It was on the basis of this unfamiliarity that I thought it unnecessary to buy tickets before the show, which proved to be a huge mistake. I showed up a half hour before the opener was supposed to go on, finding the show to be completely sold out. Disappointing, but lesson learned. People do know who Jason Isbell is and my faith is now restored that one of the great country/southern rock voices out there is not going completely ignored.
Coming on the heels of Here We Rest, which was very good as a whole and contained 3-4 great tracks, I can’t say I expected Southeastern to do much more than hold even with Isbell’s previous level of quality. Isbell had already proven himself to be a steady voice within his genre, so what’s the use of having super high expectations. With these medium expectations its weird that without changing format or style, Isbell managed to blow my expectations out of the water with Southeastern. Isbell released a record that moves him into the upper echelon of singer-songwriterdom.
I have no doubt the quality of Southeastern didn’t come without great personal struggle and strife to Isbell. Upon first listen, its no secret Isbell has struggled with alcohol abuse, been in at least a couple painful relationships, and been dragged down by life on the road as a traveling musician. This is all plainly clear on the face of Isbell’s lyrics, but the artful way in which he says all these things harkens back to the greatest work of Steve Earle and Lucinda Wiliams, who like Isbell also don’t fit comfortably in the classification of country because of the connotation that comes with it.
“Songs That She Sang In the Shower”, perhaps the best song to sing along to on Southeastern, finds Isbell singing about a girlfriend leaving him and him fondly remembering the little things like her singing in the shower. The track hits its highpoint with the painful lyrics “and experience robs me of hope that you’ll ever return”. Southeastern is no romantic comedy, the pain is real.
Beyond the personal demons Isbell is constantly confronting on the album, Isbell’s voice has never sounded better. The way he vocally carries the opener, “Cover Me Up”, over the gentle slide guitar is simply breathtaking. Isbell has never made so many creative vocal decisions on any of his previous albums, which really helps take Southeastern to a level he hasn’t breached before. There is a richness and sincerity of emotion that is rarely seen on even the greatest albums.
You can’t come away from listening to Southeastern without saying, “Damn, I really hope Jason Isbell is going to be alright”. That is the highest praise for an artist that is being as raw as he can possibly be. The bar is now set significantly higher for Jason Isbell’s next album, and if Southeastern is any indication, he will be up to the task.
Can’t Miss: “Traveling Alone”, “Cover Me Up”, “Live Oak”, “Songs That She Sang In the Shower”
Can’t Hit: none