At my office, it’s a tradition for everyone to share their top 10 songs of the year. When, just before Christmas, a coworker asked for my list, I responded, “I haven’t listened to a song released in 2013. I am the least hip hipster ever.” I thought about it for a while afterward, and while the sentiment was basically true, it wasn’t factually correct. There was one album that came out this year that I not only purchased, but really loved: Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.
Southeastern is the fourth solo album for Isbell, who first came to prominence as a member of Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers. I casually enjoy the Truckers’ music, but I couldn’t really name you any of their albums or any of the other band members. Isbell ended up getting kicked out of the band for being a destructive alcoholic—and seriously, you know you’re a real alcoholic when you get kicked out of the Drive-By Truckers for being too drunk—and he launched a solo career. His work found his way into my alt-country Pandora playlists, but it didn’t really reach out and grab me and force me to pay attention to him.
My first real exposure to Isbell came when I saw Ryan Adams play at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento in October 2011, during the Ashes and Fire tour. Adams was playing solo acoustic, and Isbell was his opener, also solo acoustic. I got there a bit late and only caught the last couple of songs of Isbell’s set. He ended up coming back out and playing with Adams on Ryan’s encore, which led to the highlight of the concert: It was the last show that Isbell was playing on the tour, and Adams apologized to Isbell for forcing him to listen to “satanic death metal” on the tour bus, and then played a faux death metal tribute to their friendship that is, to this day, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.
I didn’t know anything about Isbell’s alcohol problem, but he was obviously bloated and out of shape at that show, and apparently right after that tour he checked into rehab, thanks to the urging of his wife and Adams–once a famously destructive alcoholic and drug abuser himself.
It’s my general policy to be against sobriety, but if Isbell getting off the sauce led to Southeastern, then more power to him. The songs on the album are beautiful, heartfelt, sometimes wrenching pieces, many of them about journeying back from the depths of alcoholism. It opens with Cover Me Up, a song that Isbell wrote for his wife, which is mostly just him and an acoustic guitar. He sings with a great physical power—he really projects his voice on the chorus—about “days when we raged” and then sobering up and refusing to leave the room he shares with his lover.
The second song, probably my favorite on the album, is called Stockholm, an apparent reference to the famous Stockholm syndrome, in which a captive comes to feel bonded to his captor. It’s a smart way to allude to addiction, and has a bridge with lyrics that I just love: “Tie me up tight in these shackles I wear/Tied up the keys in the folds of your hair/And the difference with me is I used to not care/Stockholm, let me go home.” On the second bridge, he slightly alters the lyrics, in part to ascribe credit for his recovery to his wife, saying “The difference with me is I’ve fallen in love.” It’s a kickass song.
Not every song on the album is about Isbell’s addiction and recovery. Elephant tells the story of a man watching a young female friend die of cancer. It’s a gut-wrenching song that contains lyrics like “Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone,” and “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity.” It closes repeating the line “We just try to ignore the elephant somehow,” referring to the white elephant that is our own mortality. As someone who watched my closest friend die when she was just thirty-one years old, I find it devastating, to the point where I have a very hard time listening to it. Of course, that’s a sign of the song’s emotional truth.
I could write a mini-essay about nearly every song on this album. We haven’t even touched on the fantastic breakup tune Songs that She Sang in the Shower, or Live Oak, an outlaw country song that artfully uses a man’s story of a life of crime as a metaphor for Isbell’s drinking days. The point is, most of the songs on Southeastern are great. Just go buy the damn album already.