Jason Isbell "Southeastern"

Sobriety and new found love inspire twelve beautifully crafted songs of redemption.

There’s nothing like sobriety to set off a singer/songwriter’s creative juices. Jason Isbell sets the agenda immediately in the opening track on Southeastern. “Cover Me Up” acknowledges past lovers who hoped to help the musician find his way to happiness, but it took one special lady to light the path to self-awareness. It’s a sexy song of redemption and it sets the tone for the following eleven songs. If that song highlights the bright side of sobriety there are plenty that cut to the ugly truth.

Isbell has been growing as a writer since his days as a member of The Drive By Truckers but he’s hit his stride with Southeastern. Each track is a story that captures the gist of life’s challenges, reveals the not so hidden agendas of characters, and creates portraits of living, breathing people who are painfully yet beautifully human.“Elephant” vibrates with two lost souls, one in the process of dying, the other living but lost, who get high together in order to deal. It’s a raw, honest portrait of complicated relationships. Isbell excels at this. His language is direct, getting to the heart of the story and the soul of his characters. He proves to be an apt storyteller but like any good yarn you end up wondering how much of it is personal. Isbell admits that “Cover Me Up” is about his relationship with his wife Amanda Shires. But check out “Live Oak.” “There’s a man who walks beside me/he is who I used to be/and I Wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.” The song goes on to detail a fictional character but that opening line could just as easily be another song about Isbell’s relationship with Shire.

Southeastern is mostly an acoustic affair with fiddles, strummed and picked nylon string guitar, and bass, but occasionally Isbell amps up the sound. “Super 8 Motel” kicks in with electric guitar and drums as the singer relates his fear of dying in a cheap motel after an alcohol-fueled show. Isbell bookends the album with the reflective final track, “Relatively Easy.” He lists the many things that in his past life would make a good excuse for drinking. This time round he’s able to acknowledge that comparatively speaking, these things mean nothing in the big picture of a life well lived.

(Rosemary Welsch)