Jason Isbell is writing songs, at 35, that suggest a whole lot of life experience. That and, as we’re told on the opening cut of this wonderful recent album, Cover Me Up, he’s facing his demons as early as he can. In a song about sobering up, on a record about sobering up – among other things – Isbell sounds driven, focussed, writing out of his skin; it’s the album of his career, it beats his earlier records, his work with both The 400 Unit and Drive-By Truckers.
Actually, I can’t get past the fact that Southeastern sounds like Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker. Not so much that, song for song, it sounds the same. But it sounds – for me – like when I discovered Heartbreaker. There’s absolutely hints of a similar sound, Stockholm kicks off with Isbell’s version of Adams’ version of that long, loping drum sound on The Weight by The Band. If it suited Adams just fine to knock it off, spin it around, reinterpret it (and more than once) on Heartbreaker, then Isbell, whether consciously or not, has done the same here; his version.
The slide playing and feel of the closing track, Relatively Easy, recalls some of the kind and gentle moments across those underrated Tom Petty albums – which is every other one in that man’s catalogue. And on Yvette we have Isbell singing searing country-soul, the guitars cutting down into the sides of the song when needed.
But almost every song here could be worthy of a mention – from the cautious, thoughtful playing on Elephant to the rock-out knees-up of Flying Over Water; again so very Adams-sounding – but better.
Better, because you believe Isbell, where Adams has always sounded (seemed) like an actor.
You believe Isbell because of the way he sings, absolutely. He throws it all out – his voice soars, it’s crisp and he never strains or yelps but he still puts it all out there. The real reason you believe him is for the prose, for the way he goes for the throat of each song. Songs That She Sang In The Shower is a standout, in that sense.
There are great lines within the songs – both musically and in terms of the lyrics. Flying Over Water’s guitars dart and pulse, and the weave of the fiddle and guitar on New South Wales is deeply country, perfectly placed for the tinkle and patter of piano and brushes on snare to add their subtle support.
He can craft so much in his follow-up lines too, “I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them” would be good enough as is – but Isbell gets to paint so much background into his punchline, “Then his fist cut the smoke/I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke”. Now we have everything we need, a tension, a mood, impetus. And sill that smart-ass one-liner. Embellished, uncorrupted.
I can’t say I’m fond of Super 8 in the context of this album – it feels a bit like a so-so Truckers b-side, but hey, it ain’t a bad song, just one that seems incongruous here, even if he nails the honky-tonkin’, bar-room country sound.
That’s one small quibble though – for Southeastern just plays out so perfectly. The hit-rate of songs is hugely impressive; again that takes me back to my feelings around Heartbreaker at the time when that was released.
Here’s hoping there’s more, erm, Gold, from Isbell to follow.