As a solo artist, Jason Isbell has had a rough time of it. Any discussion of his work invariably seems to circle back to his time with the Drive-By Truckers, even though he’s been flying solo for about seven years now, with four studio albums (including the newest one), a live album and a few dozen self-penned songs to his name. His stint with DBT lasted about six years, but he contributed only eight original songs to the studio albums the band released in that time (a couple of fine outtakes surfaced later on an odds-and-ends compilation).
To be fair, those eight songs are excellent, and more than half of them are absolute masterpieces. Numbers like “Outfit,” “Decoration Day” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” are so good that they rank toward the top of not just Isbell’s discography, but DBT’s as well. The performances are staggering, of course, but it’s the songs themselves that most impress. They’re remarkably astute, elegantly constructed, personal enough to retain the aura of authenticity and universal enough to become anthems.
Isbell’s first three solo outings were quite strong, and they would have been counted as high points coming from just about anyone else. Each featured a few tracks that could stand alongside his work with DBT. They were all, however, a bit lacking. Sometimes the songs weren’t up to his usual standards, and sometimes the albums played like too much of the same thing, relying on tasteful but undistinguished aural backing. The press surrounding the new release has made it clear, too, that the first few years of his solo career were beset with personal problems, including a well-publicized struggle with alcohol abuse. But with Southeastern, Isbell has broken this hard luck streak, crafting an album worthy of his considerable talents.
Each of the songs is a stunner. “Cover Me Up” is on the one hand a gentle, insistent love song, and on the other a moving testament to personal redemption that never once turns a blind eye to past indiscretions. It sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which is given equally to the promise of romance and the ever-looming possibility of suffering, both self-induced and arbitrary. “Elephant” is an unflinching examination of the wages of sickness. “Live Oak” brings the murder ballad into the 21st century by forcing upon the narrator an undeniably modern sense of self-awareness and self-doubt. “Relatively Easy” gives the album an optimistic ending, though the singer tacitly acknowledges the threat he continues to pose to himself (the adjectives and adverbs tell the story: e.g., “my angry heart beats relatively easy”).
As good as the songs are (and I can’t stress enough just how good they really are), Isbell’s singing may be even better. It’s certainly some of the best vocal work he’s yet committed to tape. His baritone, always rich, is deepened here by a grittiness that lends Southeastern a real soulful quality (check his dynamic delivery on “Flying Over Water”). And in terms of sheer sound, the record has no equal in his catalog. It’s cohesive, to be sure, grounded throughout in brittle acoustics and modest, winning melodies, but it’s lifted by subtle, evocative flourishes—some wonderful slide work on “Cover Me Up,” or the plaintive fiddle on “Traveling Alone,” to give just a few examples.
By any reasonable aesthetic criteria, Southeastern is a triumph. It’s a vindication for those of us who have charted our lives by his work, carrying songs like “Outfit” around like talismans. It’s the most potent expression to date of Isbell’s talent (including his DBT output) and, hopefully, a harbinger of great things to come.