RIFF ALBUM CHALLENGE

‘Southeastern’ by Jason Isbell

This album is a short story master class

Photo by Stephen Niemeier from Pexels

Southeastern is one of the best short story collections of the last decade. The fact that Jason Isbell weaves these complicated, heartbreaking, and unflinchingly human tales while strumming a guitar is beside the point.

Whether he’s singing about sobriety, a fiery new relationship, a night on the town gone horribly wrong, or a friend dying of cancer, Isbell has a gift for delivering well-constructed sentences that pack an emotional punch. Which comes as no surprise to anybody who has followed his impressive career.

Writing evocative lyrics has long been a strength of Isbell’s, dating back to his time in the Drive-By Truckers and across the seven studio albums that bear his name (often with his backing band, The 400 Unit). Listen to Isbell talk about songwriting and it becomes clear how important stories are to him.

“If you go into a music store, it’s not shelved based on what’s true and what’s fiction. That to me is one of the things that’s really attractive about songwriting; you can write about what you know, but you can still create a completely fictional story to explain yourself sometimes,” Isbell told Music Radar in 2016.

Three Songs, Three Perfect Short Stories

Elephant

Ask any Jason Isbell fan about their favorite tracks, and “Elephant” will likely make the list. (I would have to agree.) Although this isn’t the song that put him on my radar, it is the one that made me sit up and pay more attention to his exceptional lyrical talents.

She said Andy, you’re better than your past
Winked at me and drained her glass
Cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore
She said “Andy you’re taking me home”
But I knew she planned to sleep alone
I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from her floor

“Elephant” is about an intense friendship cut short by cancer. Isbell has said in interviews that it was inspired by the regulars at a bar he frequented in Alabama (“These were people who weren’t having the best life. They were spending a whole lot of hours sitting at a bar…”).

But inspiration is only the beginning of his songwriting process. What might result in a tremendously sad ballad from other talented songwriters is taken to unfathomable depths in Isbell’s capable hands. The subject matter is haunting, but the storytelling is undeniably human.

“I like to mix people together and make characters, especially with a song that’s this heavy, with a subject matter that’s this heavy. I like to build characters and allow them to behave as naturally as possible, and I think the two people that wound up existing in this song, I think they really did behave the way those folks would,” he told NPR in 2013.

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

Super 8

Although it’s set in a hard-drinking, hard-living universe similar to the one in “Elephant,” “Super 8” is almost more comedy than tragedy. The story revolves around a self-destructive narrator (a pre-sobriety Isbell?) and his bandmates, who are having a down-and-dirty, post-show party.

Having such a sweet night
Audience was just right
Drinking like a pirate do
Don’t wanna sleep yet
Buddy, it’s a good bet
I’ll raise more hell than you

Drinks are swilled and drugs consumed (“like a pirate do”?). Things are just getting interesting for the narrator and a new acquaintance when her boyfriend busts into the motel room swinging a baseball bat. His bass player takes one “in the baby fat” before they get things under control, but the intrusion does nothing to slow the party down.

By the time morning rolls around, the narrator is paying the piper at the local hospital—and already wondering if his hazy memories of the previous night will make it into his next song.

Well, they slapped me back to life
And they telephoned my wife
And they filled me full of Pedialyte
Saw my guts and my glory
It would make a great story
If I ever could remember it right

Relatively Easy

In my opinion, Southeastern is a perfect album. So, choosing a single favorite track is hard. But if you twist my arm, I’d have to go with “Relatively Easy.”

It’s probably because this song taps a certain Paul Westerberg/Replacements vein (“Here Comes a Regular” meets “Skyway”). Or because my siblings and I don’t see eye-to-eye about politics and religion these days (“Is your brother on a church kick? Seems like just a different kind of dope sick…”).

Then again, it could be that I knew a few high school sports stars whose lives unraveled after graduation.

I lost a good friend
At Christmastime when folks go off the deep end
His woman took the kids and he took Klonopin
Enough to kill a man of twice his size

Not for me to understand
Remember him when he was still a proud man
A vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand
Nothing but the blue sky in his eyes

Whatever it is about the intricate yarns Isbell weaves together here, I’m constantly caught off guard by certain phrases in this track. Take “A vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand” for example — I have a complete picture of this character in only nine words, and I’m invested. Then, Isbell casually adds “Nothing but the blue sky in his eyes” and my heart snaps in two.

There’s a deceptive ease to the way he uses language to paint these scenes. As if he’s just a talkative guy at the bar beside you, instead of a master wordsmith carefully constructing worlds in a handful of verses and choruses.

“People have heard so many songs and stories and for you to really get through and write something that means something to somebody on a personal level, you’ve got to let yourself be honest, even when it’s difficult. Most importantly when it’s difficult. The hardest things, they always work out for the best,” Isbell told Music Radar.

For my money, nobody today writes songs about uncomfortable truths quite like Isbell. He invites you into the sordid tales on Southeastern with stripped-down production, but you’re soon immersed in these petty tragedies.

And like the best short story collections, I find something new to focus on every time I revisit this stunning album. I love the music, but it’s the stories that keep me coming back.

LA-based writer and drummer. I publish crime novels, and non-fiction essay collections about music. Medium focus: Music, Books, Culture. Twitter: @swlauden

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