Jason Isbell's Southeastern

Jason Isbell's Southeastern, is a rare thing -- an honest, singer-songwriter record that strikes a truly personal vein without drifting into the realm of the precious or overwrought. Isbell, wearing his proverbial heart on his sleeve, is getting the kind of press that he hasn't seen since he was part of the Drive-by Truckers. He might finally be leaving that part of his career behind, so that he can be respected on his own as the fine song writer that he has become with each successive record.  

Southeastern's stripped-back arrangements allow the songs to breathe. His character sketches remain strong; in fact, they seem more grounded in reality than they have before. Isbell has created a record with truly believable characters, something he has been groping towards since Sirens of the Ditch. Here he is entirely successful because he doesn't try to experiment as much. Siren's great songs ran the gamut of rockers, blue-eyed soul, and folk. While they showed Isbell's range, he never seemed as comfortable as he does here. He isn't running from the shadow of his previous band anymore, but he is crafting songs that fit nicely next to Trucker classics, such as "Outfit" and "Goddamn Lonely Love." Isbell proved that he was ready to release a fully rocking double live LP, the likes that hasn't been seen since the seventies with Live From Alabama. His more rocking side has also been captured less successfully on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, an uneven record that had some classic tracks, but much like Truckers' records could have been pared down to a leaner, meaner recording. 2011's Here We Rest was an amazing record. Isbell's songs remained literary, but were tighter and, often, achingly beautiful. He has outdone them on Southeastern; his characters live like none since his Trucker's heyday.

Much like Cory Branan, Isbell has crafted an excellent story and character driven album that reaches far beyond many of his contemporaries. He still addresses the personal, telling stories about small town lives and heartbreak, but on a much wider scale. Characters struggle and succeed under the stress of daily living. In "Stockholm," he sings, "Once a wise man to the ways of the world / Now I've traded those lessons for faith in a girl." These songs tend towards the hopeful even as they map the tragedy of drunkenness and drug use, and cleverly phrased references to each. "Traveling Alone" is a spiritual descendant of Here We Rest's "Stopping By" with a narrator who has learned his lesson and is willing to ask for help. Whether he writes of the "Elephant" in the room that follows Andy, the protagonist, or a character that seems closer to his real life on "Live Oak," traveling with Isbell seems familiar, but is always rewarding. His characters are us, and he has never done a more effective job of conveying their pain or crafting an album that is strong from start to finish.


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