Review Summary: Imperfect, but perfect in its imperfection.
Southeastern starts with a bang. “Cover Me Up” is a powerful call to simply be loved, loved well, loved completely. The narrator declares, “So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good”, and you know his desires are pure. He has been through great change (“I sobered up/I swore off that stuff/Forever this time”), he regrets who he was before, and wants to be known for who he is now.
“Cover Me Up” has become Southeastern’s signature track, not because it is its best, but because the first time you hear it, it hits you in the gut, hard. That punch stays with you through the remaining eleven tracks, and the rest of it hits you just as hard, so hard that by the end of “Relatively Easy”, you have been pummeled. Wrecked. Destroyed. And then you are born anew, just like Isbell was before he made this. And you listen again, and you understand it in a way you couldn’t before.
This record is the sound of a man reconsidering all that he has been through, his angels and his demons, and funneling his entire essence into his music. It does not matter if you like country or not. If you can listen to this without feeling something, you must not be alive. Because whether or not you have been through what Isbell has, these stories – his story – are universal.
It is hard to say exactly what makes Southeastern so good. In fact, musically, it is not innovative at all. There is nothing here you haven’t heard before. But Isbell clearly put deep thought into the arrangements, spare as they are. Most songs consist of only a strumming acoustic guitar, hints of bass, shimmering fiddles/violins, and subdued drums. The electric guitar and piano (with a few exceptions) play only textural roles, a chord here and there (always masterfully placed) to reinforce what the other instruments and Isbell’s vocals and lyrics are doing. The only songs that “rock” are “Flying Over Water”, which has a beautifully painful, distorted, cathartic guitar solo that sounds like a man ripping himself apart and putting himself back together, that is perhaps the musical moment of the whole album, and “Super 8”, an uptempo country-rocker that seems simple at first yet reveals itself as a call for purpose. Overall, the arrangements, as uninteresting as they are, serve their purpose perfectly: the main attraction here is Isbell’s lyrics and vocals. And oh, are they amazing.
Isbell’s lyrics are pure poetry. Steeped in regret and desire, they are simultaneously personal and universal. When Isbell sings a capella in “Live Oak”, “There’s a man who walks beside me/He is who I used to be/And I wonder if she sees him/And confuses him with me/And I wonder who she’s pinin’ for/On nights I’m not around/Could it be the man who did the things I’m living now?”, he is not referring to himself (the song is about a group of men who “robbed a Great Lakes freighter/Killed a couple men aboard”), but the suggestion that he could be makes it powerful; we are all haunted by demons of the past. Isbell’s great power as a vocalist, beyond his beautiful, creaky, imperfect Southern twang, is his ability to completely inhabit a song, to take it and force his entire being into it.
And the stories he tells are extremely powerful. “Traveling Alone” is a plea to be accompanied by a lover. “Elephant” is a tearjerker about a lover living with cancer. “Different Days” is a subtle story of regret about a man who, “Ten years ago…might have stuck around for another night/And used her in a thousand different ways”. “Yvette” is a murder ballad set before the murder actually happens, and its story poses deep questions of right and wrong.
Hanging over the whole thing is Isbell’s reform from his hard-drinking times, but this is not the work of a man who has all the answers yet. He takes confidence in his reformed ways, and hopes they will help him answer all the questions he ignored before. This is the work of a man who merely wants to be accepted, who wants to move forward but still is not quite sure how.
Southeastern is simply transcendent. It is not an easy listen, but it is extremely rewarding. One could go on and on about all of the little details; every song is packed with powerful, quotable lines and slight yet indelible musical touches that become engraved in your mind for days. Unfortunately, despite its acclaim (it scored an 87 on Metacritic, with enough reviews to be declared the 4th best of 2013 by the site, and as of the writing of this review, it holds the number 1 spot of 2013 in this site’s database, despite no reviews and its meager number of ratings) it has not enjoyed all of the attention it deserves, mostly due to its genre; country-folk is not exactly “hip” music. But everyone needs to give up “hip” every now and then.
This is a powerfully, completely human album. There is a little of all of us in here. This album possesses the ability to make the listener truly feel, for every second. Perhaps Southeastern is simply destined to go down in history as one of those underappreciated masterpieces. But whenever it is uncovered anew, the dust shaken off, each virgin listener will be treated to something truly special. It is not perfect, but neither are we, and for that very reason, it is a classic.