Friday, January 10, 2014

Number Eight: Jason Isbell - Southeastern (2013)

Southeastern Records ■ SER 9984
Released June 11, 2013
Produced by Dave Cobb




Side One:Side Two:
  1. Cover Me Up
  2. Stockholm
  3. Traveling Alone
  4. Elephant
  5. Flying Over Water
  6. Different Days
  1. Live Oak
  2. Songs that She Sang in the Shower
  3. New South Wales
  4. Super 8
  5. Yvette
  6. Relatively Easy
I suppose it's a given that I know Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers, but the truth is I got into them via 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark, which postdates both his final album with the band (2006's A Blessing and a Curse) and his debut solo record (2007's Sirens of the Ditch). This put me in the strange and seemingly unenviable position of liking a band in what was considered a reduced state; many felt they'd declined severely after his exit, even with the natural caveats for the remaining members. It made me--as such things do--wary of his solo work, as it doesn't give the greatest impression of anyone's fans to often couch that fandom in dismissal of something else.

Still, during a random bit of shopping in 2010, I ran into his second post-DBT album, the one which eponymously named his band the 400 Unit, and fell madly in love (after all, wariness is not cause for dismissal, either!) with it. Since then, of course, he has released, inbetween that and this, 2011's Here We Rest, still with the 400 Unit, and in post-or-mid-I'm-not-quite-sure start to sobriety. A lot of people prefer that record and this one, as I even found zero songs from that favourite four years ago in the last set I saw him play.

A lot of people called this one out around release as a pretty solid candidate for album of the year (the first I recall being someone I used to work with) and in principle I most definitely cannot disagree. Here We Rest felt a little more scattered to me than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit--not weaker, mind you, just less focused. While Southeastern abandons a lot of the rock that drives that self-titled record (not all, though), it stays the course it chooses to perfectly to find any criticism in this.

"Cover Me Up" begins a small chain of breath-taking odes to Isbell's wife, Amanda Isbell (née Shires), though perhaps the only one explicitly and directly that: it's Jason accompanied only by himself, albeit multi-tracked. But as it starts, it's just his lone acoustic, and his voice, with his slide creeping in only at the edges, crisp and lively. It rolls along at a steady pace, his voice low and almost whispered in its intimacy, but reaches for the ceiling at the chorus, and very nearly tears through it.

Should you feel discomfort with that intimacy, it is interrupted at the right moment by the shift to "Stockholm", which brings a full band into play--not quite the 400 Unit, though it shares with the Unit Chad Gamble on Drums and Derry (ex-Son Volt) DeBorja on keys. Though the instinct, particularly in light of the lyrics, is to expect the mutually musical Amanda to join him, the voice heard alongside him is that of Kim Richey. DeBorja gets his most powerful appearance on the record here, the shuffling thump of Gamble and Brian Allen's bass anchors it, but it is moved most explicitly by those keys, and, to some extent, the fried, electric riffs of Isbell himself. It's love as Stockholm Syndrome, but with no intimations of negative association beyond the name itself--it's the captivity breeding intimacy, but not the sense of forced captivity (though one can't be certain: then-Shires was the one who ended up sticking him in rehab).

My father--who shares my appreciation, and got the album for Father's Day from me--has told me that he has heard a fair bit of play on the radio for "Traveling Alone", and it's understandable, as it's something like a balance between the heartfelt, unfiltered emotion of "Cover Me Up" and the power and winking joy of "Stockholm", and this time it is Amanda alongside him, not only harmonizing but adding her fiddle to the track. In a strange way, it's just vaguely reminiscent of Whiskeytown's matching of Caitlin Cary's fiddle with Isbell's recent tourmate and friend Ryan Adams's voice. Amanda's playing shows that she typically fronts a band on her time, though, having a bit more elbowed jostling to the front in it--not in a bad way, but indicative of the playing that she does.

I don't pay enough attention to know for certain that it's seen this way, but I have difficulty imagining there aren't a fair number of people treating "Elephant" as the centerpiece of the album. It's another purely solo track (so long as we allow time-traveling clones to count, or however you would count overdubs), and it's emotionally bare in entirely another fashion--the word doesn't appear for a number of verses, and even then isn't used in a way that literally states it, but it's plain that Jason (as "Andy") is singing of a dear friend lost to cancer. A writer like Isbell is ideal for addressing this: there's rumpled reality to both "Andy" and his friend, with her actual character described in the song outside of what is happening to her, and Andy's description of events conveying it instead. The elephant that's in the room, though he says they both ignored it, we can hear from his point of view is not being missed at all, with her instead defiantly ignoring it outwardly, even "mak[ing] cancer jokes". There's no telling, without trawling interviews, if it is personally real, or some kind of amalgamation of experiences--and it doesn't matter. It hits exactly as it should, never becoming syrupy, or even overly morose, defining itself with its last variation on the bridge and chorus: "There's one thing that's real clear to me, no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow."

After the weight of "Elephant", another electrified track like "Flying Over Water" is very welcome: it's also back to a full band, though the pounded out intro gives way to loose electric chords, Jason's voice and quiet taps on the rim from Gamble. Much of the time I am miserable at ascertaining lyrical intention from a songwriter who is not absolutely explicit, but I'm left with the notion that this is about the move (which is explicitly referenced, or damn near it) Isbell made from Muscle Shoals (in Alabama) to Nashville, TN. It's questioning, concern, worry about a change, a move--and what might be lost in the process, it seems.

Though it begins with hints that it will return to the solo approach, Allen's bass joins him early, and DeBorja flavours the largely acoustic chord-based "Different Days" with keys. Isbell straddles something like mourning for the life he used to live and an approving embrace of what comes now--mourning may not be the word, as there's more regret in the days than there is to leaving them.

Side Two opens with perhaps the most haunting track: "Live Oak". Introduced purely a cappella, I missed a lot of details in the song when I first heard it that clarify that it is not directly autobiographical--a history of murder, robbery, and having a sheriff on his back. Indeed, this is driven home by the muted, chunky, low, burnt chords of a guitar that emulates the kind employed by Ennio Morricone, crossed with the less dramatic version of the same used by the likes of Sun Records-era Johnny Cash. But, though I missed all that, I was not wrong in hearing autobiography, Isbell has admitted--there's a fear of what he lost of himself in sobriety, hinted at in the track that closed Side One, but here made explicit, in the context of the relationship that inspired "Cover Me Up"--a scary thing indeed.

Sliding back in time, "Songs She Sang in the Shower" is the spiky, hell-raising not-yet-sober kind of Isbell: as described, it oozes with regret and self-doubt, but tempered by the fatalistic, "I deserve this" kind of thinking that tends to perpetuate that. It's never more clear than after "she" leaves: "In a room by myself, looks like I'm here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else". And as such things often are, he's stuck on the most seemingly innocuous of reminders, the songs that she sang in the shower, which "experience tells me that I'll never hear them again, without thinking of then".

"New South Wales" brings some much-needed warmth to the album after that string of tracks, with Allen and Gamble acting only as a light anchor behind what largely remains an effectively solo track. While the first two songs on the album are clear in describing love as the finding of home, here it's just the finding of something that amounts to home, however it's arrived at, the notion of finding a place that feels safe and warm and, well, home-y.

Finally shifting things into an out-and-out rollicking rock movement, "Super 8" breaks the delicate tension of emotions and sounds that preceded it with the lick of flame that is the wild and "sloppy" slide of a well-done barnstormer. A sense of humour about wild days past and the decision to make them exactly that--past, not wild--the most ridiculous phrasing of it: "Don't wanna die in a Super 8 Motel, just because somebody's evening didn't go so well, if I ever get back to Bristol I'm better off sleeping in the county jail." A morning that finds him "not quite breathing" that ends momentarily with "looks like that's all she wrote" and the song seems like a kind of "Holy shit, this is not the way to do this", kind of moment, just a good slathering of understatement.

Unbelievably mournful slide announces that "Super 8" was but a flitting relief. "Yvette" is about a girl the singer sees with "cut glass eyes" and "covered up head to toes, so nobody will notice you". In response he sings, "I might not be a man yet, but your father will never be, so I'm cleaning my Weatherby". It's not about the song moving toward justice, it's about the response this narrator has to this: there may be some sense of justice found in it, but it's just something like the way Isbell chooses to address things like this--there's no joy, relief, or pride in his voice, just the sense that he feels this is the only solution, ensuring that her father will simply never be. It's not treated as right, or, for that matter, wrong. 

"Relatively Easy" is some relative of the comparative depth of problems phrased in the right way: it's about seeing hope and goodness knowing things could be worse, not about reducing the problems that are via that comparison. And the word "relatively" manages to capture that almost perfectly. Kim Richey joins again on vocals, and the track is sad and quiet in sound, as it does recognize that problems remain real, but finds some light around those problems. The chorus is my favourite on the record, the way that their voices don't drop a syllable in the whole beat, only speeding or changing for that word "relatively" as it is a difficult word to use here, as it's attempting to encompass relativity in itself, which is not something any word should have to do alone. But it's a damn fine closer for the record.

Listening to this, I was forced to remind myself how I had scaled my future choices going up (or is it down?) the list, and to shrug and settle for reasons I'll address as time goes on, but none of those reasons relate to any downfall for this particular record. While there are a number of people I discuss music with on most occasions we interact, there are others who almost never say a word, and one of those is my mother--she was very pleased with the clever word choices in "Elephant" and said so at the moment she heard them. I don't know that I can really work that into some kind of largely-silent-but-speaks-when-it-matters judgment, but certainly the lack of focus on music means that there's a clearer sincerity when she hears something she likes.

If forced, I would probably render the old "favourite" versus "objectively better" comparison when it comes to Isbell's work, now. I'm inclined to believe that this is indeed the staying work as things stand, even if that self-titled album remains my personal favourite. Which means, of course, that you would be well-served checking into this record for yourself!

  • Up Next: Number Seven!
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