Jason Isbell’s last studio album, Here We Rest came like a bolt from the blue and floored me. Ticking all of the boxes for great songs, great tunes, great words, great playing, it took up permanent residence in my CD player for some time. I’d ducked out of the Drive By Truckers by the time Jason had arrived, not for any particularly good reason, although after the first couple of CDs, I guess other things just got ahead in the queue. So Jason was simply something of a revelation.
Playing catch up, I’ve been fortunate enough to see him play three times, once as an amped trio, but with technical difficulties and twice solo one of those being the recent Kings Cross Chapel gig. Although he’s not playing big venues, each time there were decent numbers in and Jason impressed without fail.
I’ve also heard about a new friendship with Ryan Adams, which has led to them touring on the same bill. It seems Ryan was also impressed by Here We Rest and instigated the hook up. The pair also share spells in rehab, Jason quite recently, so a mutual pact of restraint suited both. I can only imagine that they also make a great double bill. Perhaps it’s this that has finally proved the tipping point that has seen Southeastern top the Americana charts in the US for 14 straight weeks.
Southeastern is Isbell’s fourth studio album since leaving the Truckers, with two live albums also in the mix making the last six years a busy time. Two of the studio albums, including Here We Rest, have been released with his band. Billed as the 400 Unit, they are named after an Alabama hospital’s psychiatric ward!! Both his début and this new one, however, are under his own name, although keyboard player Derry deBorja, from the Unit and once of Son Volt is on hand here. What’s more important is that 400 Unit or not, Southeatern once again ticks all of those boxes and the same mix of acoustic sensitivity and ragged rockers ensuring that this is just as addictive as it’s favoured and well worn predecessor.
Of the rockers Super 8 is a blistering example and full tilt tale of touring excess with the opening line, “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel,” setting the scene s Jason’s guitar piles on the boogie factor. It’s finger-lickin’ southern-fried goodness, fat and louche, with that loose limbed sassyness and a little bottleneck action that Jason uses to great effect at various points on the album. Flying Over Water is another corker, although a little more heartbroken as Jason sing, “In the heat I saw you rising from the dirt, drunken tears and tugging at your skirt, if only you could tell me then which part of you got hurt.”
Stockholm is another up-tempo song of a slightly different stripe, a classic slice of Americana built on a fine tune, shuffling drum pattern and descending riff. Kim Richey makes a telling contribution on harmony and the song essentially functions as a duet. Jason bemoans, “And the night so long I used to pray for the daylight to come,” as he pines to go home and confesses, “The difference with me is I’m falling in love.”
Much of the album, however is propelled by more acoustic flavours and the opener Cover Me Up is typical, showcasing Jason’s vocal strength. He’s a powerful soulful singer and when he steps back and let’s rip, it’s the stuff to make the hairs on your neck stand proud. With subtle instrumental textures added and liberal smear of slide guitar, it’s a passionate statement of the full flush of love as Jason sings, “Girl leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room ’til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.”
Travelling Alone and Elephant are two that might get you a little choked up. Certainly the latter, a song about a woman dying of cancer that is unflinching and profoundly moving. It’s hard to even write about it without welling up a little, but playing is guaranteed to get me mopping my eyes. As Jason sings, “No one dies with dignity,” the irony is that he gives the unnamed victim a dignity with the honesty of his words and the defiance they suggest. Powerful, powerful stuff.
Every song contains at least one memorable and quotable line or verse and the evidence of those long hours working on his lyrics have unquestionably paid dividends. Some of it is peppered with humour like Songs She Sang In The Shower, some seems laced with regret and the hope of redemption like Different Days. Some are good narrative story songs and Live Oak has a dark and murderous secret at it’s heart, so does Yvette but the latter is more oblique and suggestive.
New South Wales, seems to be the flip of Travelling Alone as Jason opens with, “Here we sit across a table from each other a thousand miles from both our mothers.” It’s still a hard life on the road but, “Every chorus brings us closer, every flyer, every poster gives a piece of what we need.” There are snares along the way with, “The sand they call cocaine cost you twice as much as gold,” but the hope of getting home as Jason implores, “God bless the busted boat that brings us back.”
The closer, Relatively Easy, is a lesson in counting your blessings and finally offers the hope of “I should say, I keep your picture with me every day, the evenings are now relatively easy. And here with you there’s always something to look forward to, my lonely heart beats relatively easy.”
By the time you get to these closing sentiments you’ve been on an emotional roller coaster. Some of this is devastating and raw yet there is also the sense of loves fires lit and solace at last. Jason is undoubtedly a clever writer and by treating his audience with a level of intelligence treats then in turn to some outstanding song writing. It’s a pleasure to be able to slip Southeastern alongside Here We Rest on my CD shelves, although it’s currently spending most of it’s time with the cover atop the CD player and the disc in the tray and there it will rest!
Jason has more dates in November in the UK, but will be touring with his new wife, fiddle player Amanda Shires, which should also make for a great evening of music.
Review by: Simon Holland
Cover Me Up
Album Stream via Deezer
Southeastern is released 7th Oct via Thirty Tigers
Order it on Amazon
UK Tour Dates
18 Nov Bristol, Thekia
19 Nov Brighton, Komedia
20 Nov London, The Garage
21 Nov Nottingham, Bodega Social
22 Nov Glasgow, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut
24 Nov Dublin, IE, Workman’s Club
25 Nov Manchester, Manchester Ruby Lounge