Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Southeastern - Jason Isbell

Album: Southeastern
Artist: Jason Isbell

At some point, a couple of months ago I guess, someone (it was most likely Matt Nathanson, but I can't swear to that) mentioned on twitter about how "Elephant" from Jason Isbell's recent release, Southeastern, is such an amazing song.  Seems like I bought the song that same day, or at least very soon after, and I was blown away.  I was not familiar with Jason Isbell prior to hearing "Elephant", so I had no idea what to expect.  The song is heart wrenching and beautiful and I was a complete mess by the time it was over.  So, naturally, I listened to it about five times in a row.

A few weeks later we went to my new favorite local record store and there was Southeastern on vinyl up on the wall.  After the effect that first song had on me and all the good things I had heard about the album in the meantime, I snatched it right up.  I have read a few reviews and articles about it since I got it and I've seen the record called his "sobriety record" and his "honeymoon record".  Apparently the writing/recording of the album chronologically coincides with Jason's quitting drinking and getting married.  So of course everyone and their brother has to label it the "sobriety record".  Well, forget that shit.  Don't get wrong, I don't mean to marginalize sobriety, I understand what a struggle it can be and I do not intend to undermine the huge accomplishment that it is, but still, I don't think it's fair to pigeonhole this album and label it that way.  This record is so much more than that.

Simply put, Southeastern is a beautiful record about life.  It's a wonderful collection of songs that chronicle life, love, loss and hope.  Somehow, even though it is clear that the lyrics are telling personal stories, they're crafted in such a way that anyone could relate to them no matter what their story.  Take me for instance, alcohol plays no part in my life - the last time I clearly remember having a drink was in New Orleans in November, 2012.  I may have had something since then, maybe not, I really don't know, so clearly sobriety isn't an issue for me, but when I listen to this record, I hear every line, every note, and it all gets in and works it's magic.   It's because the themes he deals with here are universal in the grand scheme of things.  We all deal with the passage of time, the necessity to grow up and move on, the need for love in our lives.  It's all here and it is all dealt with so perfectly.

I would be remiss if I focused only on the lyrics and neglected to mention the beautiful arrangements on the album.  I was first struck by "Cover Me Up" - the guitar in that song is just devastating.  Then there is the absolutely beautiful fiddle playing on "Traveling Alone" by Amanda Shires (er...Amanda Isbell...remember someone called it a "honeymoon record"? Yep, this is where that comes in).  A lot of the album is pretty quiet, but the amps are definitely given a run for their money on "Super 8", just in case we forgot they were there. Even what might be run of the mill acoustic guitar strumming on another record is taken to another level on Southeastern.  The music is intricate and haunting and layers perfectly with the lyrics.  Every time I listen to it (which has been many, many times at this point), I hear something new and wonderful. 

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