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Jason Isbell: Literary, But Keeping An Edge On 'Southeastern'

Jason Isbell's latest album, <em>Southeastern</em>, is personal and intimate.
Michael Wilson
Courtesy of the artist
Jason Isbell's latest album, Southeastern, is personal and intimate.

When Jason Isbell was part of Drive-By Truckers, his guitar contributed to the band's sometimes magnificent squall of noise, while his songwriting contributed to the eloquence that raised the band high in the Southern rock pantheon. But the group was led by two other first-rate songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Whatever backstage drama led to Isbell's departure, from a purely artistic standpoint, a parting of the ways was inevitable regardless when you hear the meticulously detailed, frequently quieter music Isbell is making as a solo act.

Isbell has been releasing his own albums since leaving Drive-By Truckers in 2007, frequently with a band called the 400 Unit, named after a psychiatric ward, which gives you some idea of where his head was at. "Was" is the correct tense to use here, because Southeastern — billed as simply a Jason Isbell album — is the first release he's put out since going public about his alcoholism and rehab. Throughout the new album, there are references to lost weekends, drinking Listerine when the booze runs out and swearing off the stuff. But Isbell is too much of a language-drunk artist to permit his work to turn into a recovery memoir.

At one point in "Songs That She Sang in the Shower," Isbell sings, "Looks like I'm here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else," and you know the guy he's describing is himself. The words and music are scrubbed clean of self-pity and instead give off energetic ruefulness — one of the best combinations of sobriety and clarity. Besides, Isbell has by no means forsaken his wild side. Look no further for proof of this than the careening honky-tonk blast "Super 8."

Southeastern combines rock, folk and country music in a manner that permits Isbell to be as literary as he aspires to be, while also keeping him rooted in pop-music forms that prevent his songs from becoming excessively flowery. He said in a recent interview that he's been listening to Tom T. Hall records from the 1970s, and Hall's kind of straightforward storytelling is exactly the right direction for Isbell to travel. But in another recent interview, he said he's been reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, to which I would say, "Jason, enjoy, and thank God and the 12 steps that you are not Raskolnikov."

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.