Jason Isbell – Southeastern

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Jason Isbell’s fourth CD, Southeastern, is about growth.  I’ve heard him in concert three times not including with his former band, including electric, band acoustic, and solo acoustic.  Of those, the last was the most compelling... the man, on a stool, playing a guitar and singing in a crystal clear aural venue to an audience intent on listening rather than participating.

Southeastern sounds like a work that was built on that tour – travelling alone and on the road for however long “too long” is.  The backing treatments are a step above Spartan but wisely remain well below the rock show traits of which he’s capable.  His acoustic guitar work is typically nimble, and the slide guitar gently breathes emotion.  The restrained production puts Isbell front and center of the music, where he shines most brightly.

Additionally, this is probably the strongest group of songs lyrically that he’s written.  The lyric book helps, but the words are quite discernible through each song.  Love, regret, loneliness, change, loss... the range of human emotions are here, usually on the darker side, but compellingly written in narratives or personal reflection, coupled with his trademark wry word-smithing.  It’s not a feel-good album, but it’s not a feel bad album, either.

I sometimes wonder how many singer songwriters are out there, waiting to be heard but known only in their hometowns.  Isbell is from North Alabama, and he’s fortunate to have a following well beyond the southeast.  The point being that I don’t have a need for a lot of musicians of his ilk in my collection, but I’m glad he’s the one who has gained notice for my region.  Perhaps he and James McMurtry are enough, one (finally) probing the truths borne of suffering and the other relishing cynicism as a means of coping, bookends of sort.

So, at album # 4, it is apparent that Isbell has found his way, stepping aside from the stylistic expectations of fans or those he presumed for himself.  This is a quiet album that lets him speak, and I can only wonder how much he doodled over the words.  Those words reflect personal growth, some allegorical, some closer to home, but if finding “himself” has been a challenging road, he’s certainly poignant here in observing the before and after.

My favorite song is “Elephant,” about a girl friend who is dying of cancer.  I won’t listen to it often, but it’s extremely well done.  My least favorite is “Super 8,” an obligatory country rocker with a worn out tune that should have been left to Delbert McClinton.  By the title, I’d expect a funny song.  It isn’t, and the music isn’t suited to it.

Some snippets of lyrics:

Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin
My daddy told me, I believe he told me true that:
“The right things’ always the hardest thing to do.”

There’s a man who walks beside me he is who I used to be,
and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me
And I wonder who she’s pining for on nights I’m not around
Could it be the man who did the things I’m living down.

In a room by myself
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

4 of 5 STARS

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