I chickened out.
That’s the only way I can fairly describe my hesitation to give Jason Isbell’s Southeastern a five-star rating when I reviewed it for another online music publication upon its release in 2013. I could try and defend myself by saying perfect scores just aren’t doled out haphazardly by critics. Or that I waffled to ensure my initial reaction wasn’t misguided, that Isbell hadn’t somehow deceived me with his effortless poetics into thinking this album was something that it’s not, that its flaws would reveal themselves over time.
At the time, I didn’t go into it thinking I would be hearing a peerless record. Not that I wasn’t already in Isbell’s corner. How could I not be, with recorded evidence like “Outfit,” “Goddamn Lonely Love,” and “Danko/Manuel” from his time with the Drive-By Truckers, and then “Codeine,” “Alabama Pines,” “Cigarettes and Wine,” and “Dress Blues” from the first three albums that he headlined? But I also felt that those three albums didn’t quite live up to the promise of those individual songs, that there was maybe a lack of focus.
Southeastern is focused to an astonishing degree. Much has been made about the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation, how it came in the wake of Isbell’s getting sober and his newfound relationship with Amanda Shires (the pair were married not long after the album was wrapped). You might expect such an album to come out sounding clear-headed and grateful, but perhaps too focused on self-help bromides.
But Isbell refused to look towards the future without confronting the missteps of his past. Southeastern begins with “Cover Me Up,” a tour de force of a track that’s at turns funny, devastating, and, in the end, cautiously triumphant. The willingness to explore the darkest depths of his addiction, and its impact on the people he loved, is bracing: “Put your faith to the test, when I tore off your dress/In Richmond on high.”
As tough as that is to hear, the song makes it clear that the narrator had to lay that bare before he could find forgiveness, both from his love and from himself. it makes his bewilderment at being so lucky to get to the other side of it that much more touching: “But I made it through, ‘cause somebody knew/I was meant for someone.”
“Cover Me Up” has become a sort of signature song for Isbell, something that you play for people who don’t know his stuff and want to know what all the fuss is about. It’s crucial on Southeastern because it sets the tone of searing honesty that will prevail. The album’s first side is the gentler of the two, with songs like “Stockholm,” “Different Days,” and “Traveling Alone” all referencing his former confusion and the clarifying effect of his new love.
The outlier is the staggering “Elephant,” as Isbell steps away from autobiography, but includes that same honesty in a tale of a woman dying of cancer, told from the perspective of her closest friend and lover. When I first heard the track, it caught me off guard; it’s so rare to hear a song that’s directly about the disease, even though so many are affected by it. I saw Isbell on the Southeastern tour in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and before he played the song, he self-effacingly joked about how depressing it was. And yet you could hear a pin drop in that theater as he got to the summarizing couplet: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity.”
Had Side Two of Southeastern continued in the same vein as the first, I still would have raved about it. If anything, the second six songs raise the game, in large part because they dare to explore the alternate realities that could easily have befallen Isbell had he not cleaned himself up. The opening, a cappella couplet of “Wye Oak” begins this journey: “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.” The fact that the song then reveals itself to be a 19th century murder ballad in no way makes it any less personal.
“Songs That She Sang in the Shower” follows it up with another gut punch, via a narrator whose need to be a drunken wiseass outweighs his devotion to his significant other. That her leaving was entirely preventable makes the tale even more woeful. As is the case throughout the album, Isbell gets the details just right. Her shower songs are telling because of both her impeccable taste in music and how each choice seems to reflect on the crumbling relationship.
Some fans over the years have complained about the inclusion of “Super 8” on Southeastern, in that they believe its raucous tone interrupts the flow of the musically restrained songs all around it. On the contrary, I find that little bit of levity comes at just the right time (before the chilling story song “Yvette”), and that it’s in keeping with the theme of unvarnished truthfulness, even when it shows Isbell in an unflattering (albeit hilarious) light.
Even closing track “Relatively Easy,” which offers a mostly optimistic outlook, finds a way to equivocate on a truly happy ending. Throughout the song, the narrator tries to offer his wisdom and perspective about what’s important, but he can only do so by showing examples of how others, including himself, have gone astray.
In the end, there’s nothing easy about Southeastern. And yet, it’s an oddly romantic album. Even if you haven’t experienced the same issues as Isbell, anyone in a worthwhile relationship has likely experienced the realization that leaving behind past unhealthy habits or selfish behaviors is a must for the thing to truly work.
In the ten years since the release of Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s star has risen steadily and significantly, to the point where each new album rolls in on a wave of publicity and is equally met with heightened scrutiny. (He was also the subject of a recent documentary, Running With Our Eyes Closed.) His subsequent work has managed to live up to the high standard this masterpiece set, perhaps because like Southeastern, each of those records (both solo and with his band the 400 Unit) found Isbell collaborating with producer Dave Cobb. It’s no coincidence that Isbell’s career fortunes skyrocketed once he got together with Cobb, a guy who doesn’t impose any overbearing stylistic flourishes, yet gets the best out of every artist he produces.
As for me, I’ve been offered my own shot at redemption, albeit on a far more trivial scale. I’ve been granted the opportunity, by my good friends at Treble, to redress my initial wrong at stopping at 4 ½ stars in my assessment of this wondrous album. For its candor, its insight, its beauty, and its pain, Southeastern deserves five stars.
Come to think of it, five stars might not be enough.
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