Rare example of sobriety and marriage causing great country music…
Jason Isbell appears on the cover of Southeastern in a black-and-white, head-and-shoulders portrait, bearing the expression a man might when posing for a passport photo or a mugshot, or staring into the mirror of a hungover morning, wondering what he’s doing with himself.
Whether or not this stark design was an artistic or budgetary consideration, it suits the album. Southeastern is in part about running away and getting into trouble, but mostly about figuring out where you want to be – and, more crucially, who you’d rather be with. The plaintive mid-paced ballad “Travelling Alone” is representative. The song is a creditable addition to the canon of lonely musicians’ laments, and/but the violin and backing vocals lending sunny counterpoint to the itinerant strummer’s angst are provided by Amanda Shires, as of this past February Mrs Jason Isbell.
Southeastern is about many things, but it’s mostly, implicitly or explicitly, about her. Isbell’s previous album, 2011’s Here We Rest, was also a fretful rumination on homecoming, but the destination was Isbell’s native Alabama. Southeastern is a realisation that home is where the heart is; the albums would make more sense if they switched titles. Southeastern is not, however, a cloying collage of puppies and moonbeams. Isbell, to his evident amazement, is a contented man now, but it hasn’t always been that way; he was in rehab as recently as early 2012. Southeastern doesn’t flinch from the darkness, like Isbell wants a record of how bad it got, to remind himself not to go there again. Southeastern began as a solo acoustic album to be produced by Ryan Adams. It didn’t work out that way – it’s instead produced by Dave Cobb, whose credits include Shooter Jennings and The Secret Sisters – and it’s difficult to imagine how it would have. Though Isbell’s voice, at once husky and keening, grows ever more confident, and his signature lyrical backhanders and payoffs are honed ever sharper, both suit a more complex backdrop. Besides which, it would have been a shame to lose “Super 8”, a rollicking sequel/companion to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps”, foggily recalling an unruly aftershow party (“They slapped me back to life/And they telephoned my wife/And they filled me full of Pedialyte”).
On most of Southeastern, the jinks occur at the lower end of the scale. Isbell can’t help measuring his new life against his old one, and wondering which is the real him. The sparse murder ballad “Live Oak”, suggestive of a Warren Zevon demo, wonders “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 pretty, Paul Kelly-ish “Different Days” has the narrator’s father reminding him “The right thing’s always the hardest thing to do” (not the first time Isbell has quoted the old man’s wisdom – the line could be an out-take from “Outfit”, the high point of Isbell’s contributions to Drive-By Truckers). “Stockholm” and “New South Wales” are homesick postcards, the latter briskly uncomplimentary of the local stimulants (“The piss they call tequila/Even Waylon wouldn’t drink.”)
All of which is bookended by two beautiful love songs, each the more powerful for their deadpan gruffness. Opening track “Cover Me Up”, which has something of Richard Thompson about it, crests on the entreaty “Girl leave your boots by the bed/We ain’t leaving this room/Till someone needs medical help/Or the magnolias bloom”. The closer, “Relatively Easy”, finds the courage to make a difficult acknowledgement in the context of country and/or rock’n’roll, both genres defined by a fixation with absolutes: that pretty good is actually really good (“Here with you there’s always something to look forward to/My angry heart beats relatively easy”).
“Southeastern” is Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love or Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks with a happy ending, and it isn’t much shadowed by either comparison. It’s Isbell’s best album yet, and suggests that he’ll do better still.
A lot of Here We Rest was about coming home to somewhere. A lot of Southeastern seems to be about coming home to someone. Is that a fair analysis?
Sounds fair to me. Someone that sometimes might be a lover and sometimes might be yourself or your upbringing.
Why is this a solo album rather than a 400 Unit album?
I started out with the intention of making a solo acoustic album, but that got boring, so we called some folks in to play. Jimbo Hart wasn’t available. There could never be a 400 Unit album without Jimbo.
You inhabit different characters on the album, but they’re all seeking and/or finding some sort of redemption. To what extent can they be read as once-removed autobiographies?
Isn’t most fiction once-removed autobiography? That’s the beauty of writing songs rather than books: They aren’t filed based on what’s true and what’s fiction.
Is the cocaine and tequila in New South Wales really that bad?
Yes. Yes it is. The farther you get from Latin America, the worse those things tend to be.
INTERVIEW: ANDREW MUELLER