Release Date: Jun 11, 2013
Record label: Relativity
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative Country-Rock, Roots Rock, Southern Rock
Jason Isbell received a lot of recognition early and often. As a precocious adolescent growing up on the outskirts of Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals region, he idolized and revered the area’s musical heroes, worshipping at the shrine of F.A.M.E. studios and its’ star-studded recording clientele in the same way his local peers bowed down at the sight of nearby Bryant-Denny Stadium and the University of Alabama football team.
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).
Much of the press surrounding Jason Isbell’s new album has been focused on the fact that, in the interim between this first solo effort and his last release with his band The 400 Unit (2011’s Here We Rest), he got sober and married. That might lead a listener to expect an album full of well-meaning, self-help bromides and syrupy love songs. Southeastern is, thankfully, nothing like that.
Jason Isbell was one of three first-class songwriters in the Drive-By Truckers, along with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and each of them had (and has) his own spin on the kind of raucous Southern soul-country that band specialized in. When Isbell left in 2007 to pursue a solo career, there was every reason to believe he would continue in the same vein. Instead, Isbell produced work that still had some Alabama country twang, but was really closer to the folky singer/songwriter side of the spectrum, full of graceful melodies with thoughtful and literate lyrics.
In recent interviews with the New York Times Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, Jason Isbell has been admirably forthcoming about his alcoholism, admitting that he can’t remember much of the time he spent with the Drive-By Truckers, who decided to move on without him after several attempts at rehabilation. Isbell's solo albums, especially his 2009 self-titled LP and 2011’s Here We Rest, ended up sounding cursory, as though he was trying too hard and not hard enough; there were too many go-nowhere genre excursions and not enough focused storytelling. It didn’t help that the music sounded too polished, too polite, too professional, with too little grit and personality.
"I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time," sings Jason Isbell on "Cover Me Up," a world-weary love song that shows the Alabama native isn't averse to autobiography. It also suggests that rehab has sharpened his country-rock storytelling. Here, he mostly dials back the volume to plumb heavy emotions. New wife Amanda Shires and Kim Richey add harmonies to rich songs about love's struggle.
The moment comes three songs in to Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s fourth studio album. The track is called “Traveling Alone,” an easygoing, fiddle/acoustic guitar-powered toe-tapper which, upon a surface reading of the lyrics, could easily be taken as one of those weary-of-the-road numbers that perennially finds its way into musicians’ repertoires. After all, travel is what those folks do, a lot of it, and the other thing they do a lot of is writing about what they know.
Jason Isbell defines his strength as the ability to throw daggers at his own vulnerabilities, and this quality is what stands out in his fourth full length record. Southeastern is not your average romp in the Americana landscape, though the typical themes of heartbreak and loss certainly permeate the storytelling. What’s different here is the brutal honesty with which stories are presented, including a few expletives here and there for good measure.