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. Soon, he was sitting in on sessions, earning a songwriting contract, and before too long, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, becoming a key member of Drive-By Truckers. It was here where Isbell’s star shone the brightest, where he penned several songs (“Outfit” and “Decoration Day” in particular), so immensely good, that they should eventually someday be included in a curriculum in master’s classes on songwriting.
However, as everyone knows, life in a rock and roll band can be fraught with peril and temptation, and Isbell like many before him and many others destined to follow, found himself succumbing to the sirens of the lifestyle. Eventually, he was out of the Truckers, out of a marriage, and out on his own with his band, the 400 Unit, making albums and hitting the road, but still unable to grab hold of the demons that seemed to be keeping him from reaching his full potential. He’s used the past few years to rectify this situation; attending rehab to kick the booze, falling in love and getting married again, this time to fellow musician Amanda Shires, and determinedly pursuing his songwriting craft from this newly sober and mature perspective. The hard work has benefitted Isbell, as his profile is higher now than it was even in his Truckers heyday, with the stakes raised in anticipation of Southeastern, his fourth proper studio album, and without a doubt his most stark and personal.
And though Isbell has seemingly found peace in his personal life, he’s still working through the darkness in his songs. Minus the 400 Unit, and peppered with subtle nods towards old masters like Townes, Prine, and Willie, Southeastern’s dozen tracks are for the most part, narrated from a damaged perspective. The songs’ protagonists have live hard and flirt with disaster yet push towards achieving a redemption of sorts. Despite their attempted strides, they remain conscious of the missteps that still may lie ahead. There’s the weary road warrior of “Traveling Alone”, who drives on through the night, haunted by his past and those times when he was “damn near strangled by his appetite”. There’s the crazed gentleman who doesn’t want to “die in a Super 8 motel”, but still manages to scare the holy hell out of his girl and fellow patrons in the meantime. And also, the cold-blooded shifter of “Live Oak” who robs, lies, and eventually kills, in turn leading him to bury his victim deep enough to touch the “water table line”. As a storyteller, Isbell is obviously taking a bit of creative license with his characters and their respective actions. However, when he sings lines like: “There’s a man who walks beside her, and he’s who I used to be. And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”, like he does later in “Live Oak”, it becomes easier to see the personal investment he has put into these words. He’s been down these paths long enough, but knows the battle to stay straight lies always ahead.
It’s a lived-in perspective he visits throughout the album. From the hopeful new beginnings he gestures towards in “Cover Me Up”, to the airs of domestic bliss he celebrates on “New South Wales” and “Relatively Easy”, there’s a sense of renewal and pride for old damages repaired and anticipation for new, rewarding journeys that lay untapped. And while it’s a presumptions endeavor to strictly tie the artist’s biography to the art he/she creates, it’s safe to say that Isbell’s recent life events influenced the perspective he’s brought to this album. It’s a poignant, reflective, and very often frank portrayal of humanity’s dual impulses authored by someone who has lived several chapters, yet knows the story is constantly being rewritten.