Jason Isbell, ‘Southeastern’ – Album Review
Jason Isbell was 22 when he first hooked up with the Drive-By Truckers, whose two singer-songwriters had a decade and a half in age on the newcomer. By the time Isbell exited the group a few years later, he had caught up with his bandmates, figuratively at least, with songs that were wise beyond his years. On his three previous solo albums, Isbell charted the same terrain he and the other Truckers frequently explored, one where working-class people whose options were quickly running out in life.
On his fourth record, ‘Southeastern,’ a newly sober and married Isbell turns to the mirror and stares at the man he’s become in the dozen years since his big break. It’s not an easy glance. Life on the road and the lifestyle it encourages hasn’t always been kind to Isbell, who’s grown into one of Americana’s finest songwriters. But it’s an honest life, and Isbell takes comfort in his decisions along the way, even if they haven’t always been the right ones.
“I made it through ‘cause someone knew I was meant for someone,” he sings on the album’s opening track, ‘Cover Me Up,’ finding peace after a decade-plus of struggles (some were his own, some he took on for others). “Girl, leave your boots by the bed / We ain’t leaving this room til someone needs medical help.” It’s a love song that finds solace in companionship and between the sheets – a new dimension for Isbell.
And while it’s nice to hear Isbell enjoying himself – in the past, he occasionally has come off like a fiftysomething grump in a twentysomething body – ‘Southeastern’ lacks the passion of his best work, even with the love and happiness that seeps into many of the album’s songs. Isbell connects better with bruised and battered souls than he does with his own heart.
Plus, the stripped-down arrangements of many of the songs prevent ‘Southeastern’ to build the momentum of his work with the 400 Unit, his backing band on the past couple of records. The record’s best songs -- ‘Flying Over Water,’ ‘Super 8’ -- are plugged-in and electric. And they crackle in the setting. Isbell sums up the album’s predicament in ‘Stockholm’: “Ships in the harbor and birds on the bluff don’t move an inch when their anchor goes up / The difference with me is I’m falling in love.” And it’s a big enough difference that it matters at times.