BY FRED MILLS
The moment comes three songs in to Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s fourth studio album. The track is called “Traveling Alone,” an easygoing, fiddle/acoustic guitar-powered toe-tapper which, upon a surface reading of the lyrics, could easily be taken as one of those weary-of-the-road numbers that perennially finds its way into musicians’ repertoires. After all, travel is what those folks do, a lot of it, and the other thing they do a lot of is writing about what they know. Early in the song, Isbell is struggling to get his car through a winter snow—“I’ve been fightin’ second gear for fifteen miles or so,” he sings—as he descends into reflection, wryly taking note of his vices (“Damn near strangled by my appetites”) and remembering a Friday night not that long ago when he was so messed up even the hookers on the street wouldn’t take his money.
Then Isbell delivers the emotional K.O., crooning in a voice wracked with recrimination and suffused in desire:
“I’ve grown tired of travelin’ alone
Won’t you ride with me?”
As he sings, a female voice quietly joins in; both the voice and the aforementioned fiddle belong to Amanda Shires, who’s worked with Isbell in the past (I also saw the pair play a set together one year in Austin at SXSW), and it was she who joined Isbell on his ride last year by agreeing to become his bride.
Knowing that—how Shires and Isbell are in fact singing to one another as lovers and not merely as country duet partners—elevates this song to a whole other level. It’s like seeing a guy drop down to his knees in a public place, gaze up at his girlfriend, and ask her, in front of everyone, if she’ll marry him.
More than that, though, the song’s an extended metaphor for the human condition and how eventually even the most ardent outsider must grow weary of doing things all by himself—how we can’t grow and evolve without the benefit of external contact and interaction. That second gear Isbell was stuck in during the first verse of the song? Ask yourself how many times you’ve privately fretted over spinning your own wheels. Strangled by appetites? It can be booze, or drugs, or sex, or even something wholly mundane, like collecting string; the point being, all too often, we allow ourselves to be consumed by our obsessions and addictions.
What a simple confession—“I’ve grown tired of travelin’ alone”—yet what a difficult one to make, in a world that prizes self-sufficiency. The plea is even simpler—“Won’t you ride with me?”—yet it, too, isn’t easy, for to ask it is, in the minds of some, to admit to weakness.
That Isbell understands this isn’t idle speculation. A notorious party hound, he decided to get sober a year or so ago, and when the fog lifted he not only realized that there was suddenly a lot more to live for (those gears had come unstuck), he was also deeply in love. All of it got poured into Southeastern (issued on his new imprint Southeastern Records). But it would be a critical indulgence to characterize this as a so-called “recovery” album. Granted, there’s self-examination a-plenty here, with no small amount of truth-telling; and sure, booze gets mentioned frequently, while cocaine’s referred to at least twice. But the songwriter is astute enough to sense that a litany of sins doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting narrative. Instead, he drops in a series of mini-character sketches that help flesh out the broader portrait being painted here of a man who found himself thrust into the wind tunnel of self-awareness.
There are moments of straightforward autobiography: in addition to “Traveling Alone” there’s restrained album opener “Cover Me Up,” which outlines the beginnings of the unexpected Isbell-Shires courtship, plus the elegant, Rodney Crowell-styled “Stockholm” which describes the wages of subsequent loneliness and longing the pair must have experienced. There are also instances where Isbell’s lead character is joined by a supporting cast that for better or worse includes his own unfiltered ego jostling for screentime: blazing garage rocker “Super 8” outlines a raucous, destructive night that starts down at the bar and ends up with a motel housekeeper screaming and the paramedics being called. Yet at other times he adopts a more nuanced stance, worthy of a novelist; as in “Elephant,” an elegant and heartbreaking elegy for a friend who succumbed to cancer, in which Isbell’s protagonist, after weighing the good/funny memories alongside the sad ones, is left haunted:
“There’s one thing that’s real clear to me
No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
If you have a pulse, it’ll bring you to your knees. All in all, Southeastern is as compelling a compendium of musical storytelling you’ll hear this year. When reviewing his previous studio effort, 2011’s Here We Rest, I compared Isbell’s songwriting to Springsteen circa Darkness On the Edge Of Town, given how his album was similarly populated by people who were grinding through assorted crises, some literal and some existential, and learning how to cope—or in some instances failing to cope, and suffering the residual fallout. If that notion holds, then I’m willing to propose that Southeastern is Isbell’s The River. Like Springsteen, he’s now turned the lens decisively inward in order to move beyond merely whiffing life’s elusive truths and gain a primal understanding of the ties that bind.
The writer’s mandate: to provide hope, and to offer solace. Meeting that challenge is what makes Isbell one of the greatest young songwriters we’ve got right now, and it’s also to his permanent credit that when he hit his moment of clarity, he instinctively grasped what he needed to do.
Listening to this stunning album will provide you with your own moment of clarity. Don’t let it slip away.
DOWNLOAD: “Traveling Alone,” “Songs That She Sang In the Shower,” “Elephant,” “Super 8”