Album Review: Jason Isbell, “Southeastern”


After parting ways with the Drive-By Truckers and his first wife in 2007, Jason Isbell has been fighting an uphill battle with alcoholism that finally seems to have resolved itself since 2012, when his then-girlfriend (now wife) Amanda Shires spearheaded an intervention. Southeastern (2013) is in many ways an emotional and spiritual chronicle of that intervention and its aftermath in song, as Isbell tries to establish an identity for himself after alcohol.

It’s only on occasion that Isbell directly addresses his addiction in the unfiltered first-person. More often, he inhabits characters with troubled pasts, like the protagonist of “Live Oak” who tries, with the help of a woman’s forgiveness, to change his murderous ways, or the buddies of “New South Wales” who swig Listerine when the booze runs out. But it’s clear that Isbell’s empathy for his screw-ups and ne’er-do-wells derives from his own experience. As he sings in “Songs That She Sang in the Shower”:

In a room by myself
Looks like I’m here with a 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

At its core, however, Southeastern isn’t really an album about alcoholism. It’s not even about recovering from alcoholism. It’s about coming to terms with our past, recognizing our faults, and trying to become better people, one day at a time.

Addiction (whatever form it takes) tears the fabric of our lives apart; therefore, recovery means stitching the tatters together again, sewing patches in the elbows, learning to live with the frayed edges. “Once a wise man to the ways of the world,” he sings on “Stockholm,” “now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl.” This is the tension that Southeastern embodies so well: the tension between regret for what’s passed and uncertainty about what’s to come, between who we were and who we want to be.

It’s not always (or even often) an easy tension to resolve, since letting go of our pasts can mean letting go of a big part of ourselves, a part we may even miss. But if these songs are any indication, Isbell is prepared to face the challenge, universalizing his own struggles with affecting tales of love and loss, disappointment and resilience, over a wistful electro-acoustic folk backing that only occasionally flares into the electrified country rock that brought him to prominence with the Drive-By Truckers. Two of the finest songs here have the least to do (at least on their surface) with Isbell’s personal demons: “Elephant,” has to be one of the best songs about cancer ever written, while the heartbreaking “Yvette,” in relatively few words, nails the complex dynamics of sexual abuse.

Southeastern ends with what sounds like a statement of purpose in the propulsive “Relatively Easy”:

Here with you there’s always
Something to look forward to
My lonely heart beats relatively easy

Jason Isbell has said in interviews that he consciously resisted pressure to find a “higher power” on his road to sobriety. And note well, his lonely heart beats relatively easy. Hope is always qualified; no “born-again” optimism here. Whether we understand the healing possibilities of relationship as the workings of a higher power is perhaps beside the point. Because in the end, it’s simple trust in those possibilities that allows Isbell—and the rest of us—to keep on hoping.


Buy it here. Spotify it here.

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2 Responses to Album Review: Jason Isbell, “Southeastern”

  1. ileneonwords says:

    Thank you. I have just “discovered” Jason Isbell and am very impressed with him music and his lyrics. He is following in some wonderful footsteps of the 60s folksingers. I enjoyed reading your review and thoughts. Please stop by and visit some time. thanks!

  2. Pingback: Tom’s Top 10 of 2013 | Revolutions Per Minute

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