Jason Isbell
Southeastern


5.0
classic

Review

by theBoneyKing USER (2 Reviews)
May 28th, 2015 | 39 replies


Release Date: 2013 | Tracklist

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 to some. 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.


user ratings (32)
Chart.
4.3
superb

Comments:Add a Comment 
theBoneyKing
May 28th 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

I couldn't believe this didn't have a review yet. This is pretty much my first serious music review ever, so I am open to criticism. Please don't take this as an upstart declaring something he has no right to!

Digging: Death Cab for Cutie - The Photo Album

Cygnatti
May 28th 2015


26609 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

i wish i dug this more. i can definitely say it's much better than most modern country. but i can also really appreciate the southern rock influence.

Digging: Elysia Crampton - American Drift

drjisftw
May 28th 2015


7 Comments


Great review. I ended up seeing Jason during a NYE show earlier in the year and he blew me away. Beautiful album.

Rockjocky
May 29th 2015


3 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5 | Sound Off

Nice review boneyking. A tad gushy but after my 2nd time through this CD, I can understand that. Some of these songs are wonderfully painful.

theBoneyKing
May 29th 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Yeah, I got a little gushy there. I probably should have cut some of this before posting, but it felt right to me, and as someone who's lived with this for a while now, I'm probably prone to hyperbole.

theBoneyKing
June 26th 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Pitchfork published a really good piece on Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves, and how they compare with popular country these days.



http://m.pitchfork.com/thepitch/814-jason-isbell-kacey-musgraves-and-the-duality-of-the-southern-thing/

Cygnatti
July 6th 2015


26609 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

new album out dudes!

theBoneyKing
July 6th 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Did it leak?

jefflebowski
July 22nd 2015


8388 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

this is as good as it gets folks, every other confessional songwriter can go home forever



elephant is an absolute emotional kneecapping

theBoneyKing
July 22nd 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

^ Thank you, you are so right. This album totally deserves the 5. New album is excellent as well, shows he can keep it up.

Cygnatti
July 22nd 2015


26609 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

i'd say he's closer to country than folk but yeah he's very good :]

jefflebowski
July 22nd 2015


8388 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

folks as in people, not the genre, though i mean country is basically american folk music so w/e



this is an excellent review btw, emotional album deserves emotional writeup

theBoneyKing
July 22nd 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

This album is what I generally categorize as "country-folk".



And thanks for the comment on the review!

Cygnatti
July 22nd 2015


26609 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

"country-folk"
let's not ;]

theBoneyKing
July 22nd 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Except it's actually a thing :P

jefflebowski
July 22nd 2015


8388 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

'folk music' is a non stylistically-specific term for the roots music of any culture, traditionally passed down orally rather than physically - it's not a genre



english folk is folk music

country is folk music

blues is folk music

etc

Cygnatti
July 22nd 2015


26609 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

but contemporary folk is!

jefflebowski
July 22nd 2015


8388 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0

it's a shitty genre name then

theBoneyKing
July 22nd 2015


1156 Comments

Album Rating: 5.0 | Sound Off

Not as bad as "adult contemporary"

blastOFFitsPARTYtime
August 4th 2015


1522 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This rules so hard. Tied with Here We Rest for my fave Isbell.. Needa spin the new one plenty more though.



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