It has taken some time for me to get round to “Southeastern” by Jason Isbell. The album was released in June 2013 but you have to be careful with some of this new music. It may seem all shiny, toe-tapping & necessary but…anyone want this Alabama Shakes CD because I will never play it again ? Any road up, the music Jason Isbell made with Drive-By Truckers has been in my collection for a while & still gets played. The 3 other LPs since he left the D-B Ts all have good songs on them. There is a focus & a consistency about the 12 songs on “Southeastern” that definitely makes it a keeper. Here’s one of the noisier ones now.
“Flying Over Water” is one of those grand American rock anthems like you used to hear on the radio. I love that music but it’s a fine line between the sublime (Springsteen, Steely Dan, Tom Petty) & the ridiculous (Cougar Mellencamp, By Jovi, oh & Springsteen). Jason Isbell respects the traditions. He was raised in Alabama with the twin influences of the Pentecostal church & the Grand Ole Opry. His publishing deal was with FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, a wonder of the American music world. Like the generation that forged the Shoals legend he knows the song is the thing. His own generation, Isbell is 36, include some great rock music as part of their roots. “Southeastern” is a traditional, classic American rock record, y’know like The Band used to make, like Neil Young sometimes still makes, like the radio used to play. Nowadays this music is packaged as “Americana”, a hook for a niche market which by definition seems to be looking backwards.
There is a strong narrative to accompany this record after Jason finally arrived in re-hab, got clean, got married &, it seems, has been able to get these experiences into his songs in a mature & assured way. There have always been characters in Isbell’s songs. This time around his own experiences are at the centre of the songs. He has been doing this songwriting thing long enough to do it sensitively & properly. Perhaps I’m being a little cold here but a reformed junkie’s story can be wearisome, self-regarding…a bleat. If all you have going for you is an appetite for getting fucked up & once you stop doing that all you can talk about is something that you used to do then I’m out of here. I have known people who are lovely, interesting & addicted. John Murry’s record “The Graceless Age” may be considered a masterpiece by some but, sorry, all I hear is a whining ex-baghead.
“Southeastern” has a lot of stories about good times & bad times, times that were both. Man, it’s tough to choose just 2 to post here. The LP sits as a piece & my picks, the earworms, change by the week. “Cover Me Up” has just won the 2014 Americana Awards Song of the Year so that may cross your path. “Elephant” is strong stuff, for adults only I guess. “Different Days” is my current squeeze, it reminds me of Little Feat’s “Willing”, a song strong enough to get the wider hearing it deserved. This time around it’s not “weed, whites & wine” but Benzodiazepine, different days indeed.
Jason Isbell wrote some of my favourite songs by the Drive-By Truckers. There’s the title track of “Decoration Day”, 4 songs on “The Dirty South”, only 2 on the follow up. The D-B T’s were getting mighty crowded with 3 very talented songwriters, one of them a little wasted & not married to the bass player any more. “Danko/Manuel”, a tune inspired by & paying respect to, a couple of the great talents who were playing in The Band, is a lovely thing, a true modern American Classic written & performed by a guy who gets it. Those college graduate bands posing as backwoods beardies just don’t get near. “Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold ?”
So that’s a Wow ! The most important thing is that Jason continues to walk the walk & keep himself together. As you can see in the clip, his new wife, the lovely & talented Amanda Shires, seems a damn good reason for a good man to keep on his chosen path. The Americana Awards made him Artist of the Year too. He has a great back catalogue of songs & an outstanding LP. The last time this music came to the UK the gigs were in lovely grimy rock bars like King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow & The Garage up in Islington, North London, very small places.
The canon for American rock was written in stone some 20 years ago or longer. Steve Earle had to make a lot of good music before he got there, Ryan Adams almost made it, let’s hope that Wilco did. Jason Isbell is that good & it would be a pity if his music is not more widely heard. “Southeastern” has covered a particular, significant period in his life. Next time around he needs to step away from the that was then but…he doesn’t need telling, the man knows what he’s doing.