Jason Isbell's star has been on the rise both as a valuable member of the Southern rock band Drive By Truckers and now as a solo artist. He won song of the year from the Americana Music Awards for "Alabama Pines" from his 2011 album Here We Rest (also featured on his fantastic Live In Alabama). Personal problems threatened to derail his ascension and he chronicles those along with growth and a new-found sobriety on his 2013 release Southeastern. The ghosts of demons now in his rearview and a new love along with the undeniable, always-present talent have resulted in his finest album to date.
I'm one of those cranks who waits until the end of the year to make my "Best Of" lists. I've fallen in love with a multitude of records and the amazing songs that comprise them and we still have six months to go but I'm compelled to break one of my cardinal rules: I'm ready to crown "Elephant" Song Of The Year.
The broken beauty, bleak humor, heartbreak, and poignance make this one of the finest lyrics ever penned and among the most powerfully told stories ever recorded. Isbell summons more raw emotion and impact than acclaimed directors and actors ever approach in two-hour films trying to tell this same story. This is his masterpiece moment and a song worthy of enshrinement in the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
"Elephant" is the emotional touchstone of Southeastern but there is plenty more to love on this record, Isbell telling stories of his own and those of others with with plainspoken sophistication, honesty, and often a pinch of humor.
He lays himself bare on the opening track "Cover Me Up," revealing the pain of having disappointed many in the throes of addiction, resolve to face life in recovery, and the new love strengthening and supporting him on this journey.
"Live Oak" reminds me of the kind of songs Bruce Springsteen wrote for Tunnel Of Love, an album where he explored relationships and the idea of a multitude of of selves within us. Isbell introduces us to the man he was and the one he's trying to be on "Live Oak," pondering which of these identities his lover yearns for.
Southeastern offers more than stark and dark, whether it's the rollicking fun of "Super 8" or touching sweetness of "Songs That She Sang In The Shower." "Stockholm" is the kind of tune that would have been a hit when radio made some kind of sense. He and Kim Richey duet with smiling, aching harmonies on this sweeping mini epic, making clever use of Stockholm Syndrome to tell its story.
Jason Isbell fought battles on many fronts and I hope his rewards are as beautiful as the one he has given all of us with Southeastern, the deepest, bravest, finest album of his carer. He's penned the best song he's ever written, one I cannot imagine him ever topping. His personal triumphs have resulted in an artistic victory.