On Cover Me Up, the opening track of Southeastern, Jason Isbell sings over an acoustic guitar and a moaning slide that “someone needs medical help or the magnolia’s bloom.” That the couplet is at once unexpected and perfected crafted is what makes this record a finely polished dark gem. Fulfilling the promise of the young twenty-something whose songs and guitar energized the Drive-By Truckers, fleshed out their southern vision and contributed to what is arguably their two best records, The Dirty South and Decoration Day (the title cut belongs to Isbell) and washing away the inconsistencies of his solo and band recordings, this newfound creativity and sobriety was hinted at on last year’s release Live from Alabama. On those performances, you could hear a man and a band that was operating at a higher level and with a resolute purpose and focus. Jason Isbell had something to prove.
Whatever wreckage Isbell caused, created or enjoyed while partying his ass off gave fuel to his creative fires, at least when the smoke in his head cleared enough to write down what he remembered. Painful and honest in a way that allows no self-pity, Isbell ponders his new life. On Live Oak, he realizes “there’s a man who walks beside me it’s who I used to be/and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me” and on Different Days, he sees that “ten years ago…I might have offered up my help in different ways/ But those were different days.” The dozen tunes here are mostly built around acoustic guitars, relying on the strength of the songs and lyrics rather than raging electric riffs. The exceptions are Flying over Water, which utilizes a quiet/loud dynamic and Super 8, a snarling, undeniably great rock n roll tune the Faces would be proud of. In a recent interview, Jason said that he wasn’t going to leave a good song off the record just because it didn’t fit the mood, but its placement is still jarring.
As a songwriter, Isbell is operating at a stratospheric, Guy Clark level, constructing lines like “sharecropper eyes and hair almost all gone,” from Elephant, the album’s emotional centerpiece, a tale of watching a friend suffer from cancer or the chilling, gothic Yvette, a story of abuse where the narrator, in a flat voice sings about “a bedroom upstairs/it’s a family affair” and how he’s “cleaning my Weatherby/and sighting my scope.”
Southeastern is filled with addiction, redemption, and gumption. Isbell, through force of will and lack of alcohol, has forged his most complete set of songs yet and one of the finest records of the year.