Counterbalance: Jason Isbell’s ‘Southeastern’

You should know compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy. Jason Isbell gets that -- and a lot more as well. His 2013 release is this week’s Counterbalance.
Jason Isbell

Klinger: As much as we music nerds like to praise our rock stars for their untamed excesses, weaving their tales of substance-fueled debauchery into the grand narrative of pop mythology, we don’t often spend much time thinking about the realities of the lifestyle. For all the talk about Led Zeppelin’s mud sharks or Sid Vicious’ bad night at the Chelsea Hotel or Fleetwood Mac’s coked-out romantic recriminations, it’s easy to forget that these are the actions of actual people, who had to wake up the next morning and look at themselves in the mirror. Jason Isbell, former partner in the songwriting triumvirate Drive-By Truckers, has crafted an incredible new album, Southeastern, that chronicles the aftermath of people’s excesses, especially his own. It also reveals him to be a songwriter of uncommon depth and humanity.

I hadn’t paid much attention to Isbell prior to Southeastern. During his tenure with the Drive-By Truckers, his songwriting always struck me as eminently worthy but altogether too conventional next to the extended narratives and thorny wisdom of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. And his solo albums up until now have struck me as fairly standard-issue. But Southeastern brings his facility for a great line and an effective turn of phrase into much sharper focus, with an almost literary attention to detail. We’ll get into the specifics as we go along, but I’m interested to hear what you’ve gained from your time with Southeastern, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: After listening to this record, I realized I might finally be ready to spend a little time with the Drive-By Truckers. I’ve been putting that off for most of my adult life. It usually takes a little prodding before all the stars align. For example, when I was 13 I borrowed David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust from the library. It sat on my stereo for a week, and the day before I had to return it, I ended up watching Labyrinth. That was what it took. I returned the record a week late and went out and bought it the next day. Had I not seen Labyrinth, would I be a Bowie fan today? Probably, but it might have taken me a little longer. It also makes me realize than I’m kind of stubborn and when someone is hitting me over the head with good music, I should probably start paying attention. Am I the only one with this problem? Do you ever find yourself wondering why it took you so long to give a record or a band a chance?

Regardless, I’m coming in a little blind not having the background to truly evaluate this record. What should I be listening for, Klinger?

Klinger: You mean like the incisive lyrics or the finely crafted character studies or the clean, understated arrangements? Try listening for stuff like that. Some of the stuff I mentioned before you started reminiscing about the time you saw Labyrinth. I don’t think you need much backstory to recognize that “Elephant” is one of the most heartbreaking, perfect songs to come along in a long time. Try that one again, then throw in “Relatively Easy” for some less wrenching listening. That should be a good start.

Mendelsohn: Man, I love Labyrinth— with all of its puppets, song and dance numbers, and Jennifer Connelly. You know what Labyrinth has that Southeastern doesn’t? A happy ending. Not that I need a happy ending —but they are nice, especially when they are unexpected. If you know what I mean.

Klinger: I do not.

Mendelsohn: There is a lot of heartbreak on this record. And I’m being glib and rambling about a terrible movie from the 1980s because heartbreak really isn’t my thing, but I recognize that it is the heartbreak that fuels this record. You get flashes of it in “Cover Me Up”, a song that immediately drew me into its tale of past transgressions and redemption. By the time “Elephant” rolls around, Isbell feels like he is pulling at a raw nerve, beckoning the listener into the darkest reaches of their own souls. I look to the more upbeat “Flying Over Water” for reprieve, but after a song like “Elephant” it’s hard to appreciate the sun when the storm knocked down the entire town. After that I kind of coast through the rest of the record. And then I hit “Super 8” and it feels a little out of place, with its good-time beat and rowdy reminiscence, like the guy who shows up at a funeral in flip flops, sipping a handle of spiced rum.

I had the same problem with Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I’ve never been comfortable with the confessional lyricist. Give me the abstract, give me the surreal, hell, give me Bob Dylan, give me anything but a laundry list of your personal problems in stark, unrelenting detail.

Klinger: Well, if Southeastern were nothing but an airing of the grievances I would be right there with you. But I wouldn’t, and I even hesitate to call this album confessional. I’m not sure which elements are taken from Isbell’s life, which ones are composites or which ones are entirely fictional. If the part in “Traveling Alone” where he’s so high the street girl wouldn’t take his pay (“Come back and see me on a better day”) is true, then that has to be one of the bravest lyrics in recent memory. (Not to mention that it’s the song that features his current wife Amanda Shires on fiddle and backing vocals.) If it’s not true, it reveals an incredible, almost Springsteenian eye for detail. In the end it doesn’t really matter all that much, because ultimately this is an album about the wisdom that should be gained from living in general, and hard living in particular.

I’m a little surprised you’re only hearing this as a laundry list of personal problems, since there’s still so much hope woven throughout the album. I refer you again to the album’s closer “Relatively Easy”, but even “Elephant” (which really does serve as the album’s emotional centerpiece) suggests that the narrator is gaining a sense of perspective from the impending death of his friend. I don’t hear it as depressing, I hear it as very real — so real, that listening to it with another person nearby almost takes you out of the moment, where you’re more caught up in the song than in real life. That’s quite a feat for a songwriter. In fact, this entire discussion could easily devolve into me quoting lyrics at you like Shelley Duvall in Annie Hall.

Mendelsohn: The Springsteen comparison makes sense to me, Klinger, thank you. Viewing Southeastern more in the vein of Springsteen’s Nebraska helps to put Isbell’s work into the greater context. I appreciate the eye for detail but Springsteen has more of a flair for the dramatic than Isbell and it is that flair that sets Springsteen apart — even at his darkest, his songs seemed to shine with an everlasting hope — or a burning rage — that you never felt quite in the dark. Despite Isbell’s lyrical acuity and strong voice, I don’t immediately feel the same pull. It’s unfair, I know. There are some flashes of brilliance on this record, but they seem to bookend the album and in the middle I find myself seeking contrast beyond the conflict in the lyrical content.

What can we expect out of Isbell in the future? Do you think Southeastern in an example of a songwriter coming into his own?

Klinger: Isbell has always been an effective songwriter, having brought what he learned from his creative writing studies at the University of Memphis to his entire approach. He had always had an ability to state things very simply and eloquently, although he has occasionally come across as somewhat mannered. But his craftsmanship has clearly crossed over into another realm with Southeastern, where he time and again reveals a line or a thought that’s stated so perfectly that you can’t quite believe that it had always been sitting there waiting for someone to come by and pluck it up. All throughout a song like “Different Days” with that universal chorus that sounds like it should have always been there, coupled with unexpected lines like, “Just another drunk daddy with a white man’s point of view”.

It’s also hard not to attribute this crossing over to his recent recovery, especially as he drops references to Benzodiazepine and Klonopin into lyrics, giving them a specificity that only proper nouns can provide. There’s an earnestness and an intensity that he brings to his writing here, as if he spent his time in rehab not just drying out, but also truly absorbing the lessons that come from sobriety. I can think of a few other songwriters who made a similar leap after getting sober — Steve Earle with his post-incarceration I Feel Alright and John Hiatt’s Bring the Family come to mind. If Isbell is able to sustain the level of incisiveness he’s achieved here on Southeastern, he’d place himself in a pantheon above either of those two. But back to you, Mendelsohn. Do you think that with more time you might hear Southeastern as a more complete listening experience?

Mendelsohn: I think I might. This album is more complex than I first thought and a little more time and a lot more listening will definitely help. Plus I’ve also found a reason to finally dig into the Drive-By Truckers.

Klinger: You won’t regret it. Whatever gets you to stop watching Labyrinth.