A special event to Matt Lynn Digital. This guest post brought to you by Cobra.
Jason Isbell has long been a critical favorite in the music world. He first came onto the scene as a member of the Drive-By Truckers and was with them for a three album run, beginning with Decoration Day, for which Isbell penned and sung the title track, a fan favorite even now in his solo career. In 2007, he moved onto a solo career with his first album Sirens of the Ditch, and then released two albums with his backing band The 400 Unit.
Then in 2013 when Isbell released Southeastern, it became an instant critical favorite. The album chronicles Isbell’s journey from addition into sobriety using some of the most intense and imaginative imagery and metaphor. It is pure poetry. It is art in its purest and truest form.
(The album Southeastern by Jason Isbell).
Southeastern starts off with “Cover Me Up,” a love song for his wife. “[I]t was a really really hard thing to do to write this song because it’s very honest from my perspective and I basically just sat down across the table from her and I told her and about our lives together and it’s scary as hell,” he would later say of the song at a concert in Boston.
The song is just that – pure honesty about his love, his failures, and his desire to be better. “Home was a dream one I’d never seen until you came along” he sings in the second verse.
The album then leads into “Stockholm,” a song about Stockholm Syndrome and the drugs and alcohol that had held him prisoner for so long and the love that drove him to set himself free despite the feelings that so many others had given up on him: “the night so long I used to pray for the daylight to come – folks back home surely have called off the search and gone back to their own.”
“Traveling Alone” is a song for anyone who’s ever grown weary of a life of being on their own. The knowledge that one has so much to give and so much to offer and no one to share it with is a hard burden to carry: “I know every town worth passing through but what good does knowing do with no one to show it to?” Who hasn’t felt that way at some point?
“Elephant” chronicles the loss of a loved one to cancer and the realization that no matter how much one may be there for a person, the dying part will always be alone. As a friend, the narrator acts as normal as he can with his friend as they “try to ignore the elephant somehow.” But even after she is gone, that loss remains with the narrator: “I’ve buried her a thousand times, given up my place in line, but I don’t give a damn about that now.”
“Flying Over Water” is about looking down at the world and a life as a whole and still seeing the pitfalls that have been a detriment to one along the way, but taking solace in the support of others who have been through similar struggles and realizing that home and redemption are closer than we think: “Take my hand baby we’re over land, I know flying over water makes you cry – we’ve been in the sky so long, it seems like a long way home, but I can’t for the life of me say why.”
“Different Days” returns to the narrative of addiction versus sobriety where Isbell describes the way his life is different now that he has found a new place in life. He once again freely and openly admits his faults and past sins with a resolve to be better. During the song while singing to an acquaintance, he admits that his past self would have had a much different approach to the relationship: “ten years ago I might have stuck around for another night and used her in a thousand different ways – but those were different days.” However, he still acknowledges in the song that living a cleaner life is not easy, possibly especially for a musician who spends so much of life on the road: “Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.”
“Live Oak” is perhaps the most curious song on Southeastern. The song tells the story of a man who, while on the run from the law, finds his way into a small farming town. We soon learn he and a group of friends had robbed a train and killed some men in the process. As his neighbors learn about his past, he again becomes an outcast and soon the woman he has fallen in love with learns of his past as well. In the song’s final verse, he reveals his new lover’s death, telling the listener “I carved her cross from live oak and her box from short leaf pine and I buried her so deep she touched the water table line. I picked up what I needed and I headed south again – to myself I wondered if I’d ever find another friend.”
At first this song seems very out of place; while a great story almost in the vein of Marty Robbins, it doesn’t seem to fit with the theme the rest of the album is presenting – until we learn what the song is a metaphor for. The lover in the song was not frightened or turned off by the narrator’s past; instead, it excited her. Isbell would later note that there are sometimes people in our lives who are attracted to the less attractive and less desirable parts of us. This song was an expression of his fear that getting clean and sober may in fact cost him some of his friends – were there those who were only interested or invested in him because of his darker side?
“Songs That She Sang in the Shower” finds a narrator struggling to maintain his sobriety in the wake of the loss of his support system. After an altercation in a barroom, our narrator finds his partner asking him if he “had considered the prospect of living alone” and “with a steak held to my eye I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye.” He then reflects on the songs his lover sang in the shower and how they still echo in his mind and he know he will never hear them again. As he moves forward without her, he reflects on the loss of his support system for his sobriety: “I pace and I pray and I repeat the mantras that might keep me clean for a day.”
“Super 8” is another song which at first seems out of place on the record. It is a heavier rock song in an otherwise much more acoustically driven record. Filled with somewhat hazy imagery seen through the memory of a drug-induced evening, our narrator tells the story of a night being stoned and waking up bleeding and vomiting and trying to figure out the night before. Near the song ends, he remarks that “it would make a great story if I ever could remember it right.”
The album closes with the optimistic “Relatively Easy,” which focuses on the positives and realizes that despite our troubles and our struggles, “compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy.”
Southeastern is Isbell’s master-work. Despite two stellar albums since, it seems hard to believe how he may ever top this album. It is full of honest, real songs that real people can relate to. Six years after this album’s release, I am still captivated by it every time I listen to it.
Elephant by Jason Isbell.
Live Oak by Jason Isbell.
Cobra – Monday, June 17, 2019
[Editorial Note: Guest posts such as this one may occasionally appear on Matt Lynn Digital. To begin, such posts as become available will be shared on Mondays.]