On his recent album, Southeastern, singer/songwriter Jason Isbell writes plaintive ballads about dying cancer patients, tender country soul numbers about the process of recovery, and swampy power-pop about Super 8 ass-whuppings. It's his fourth solo album since leaving Georgian southern rockers Drive-By Truckers in 2007, following a divorce from Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker, years of Jack Daniel's bottles emptied on stage, and musical differences.
Southeastern finds Isbell sober (his friend Ryan Adams played a role in his recovery) and remarried, to songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires, with whom he writes and records. His previous solo albums, filled with Muscle Shoals-inflected R&B and country rock, have always been good, but never quite as good as this one. Southeastern is in turns dark, seedily funny, and carefully hopeful. Whether it's Isbell himself in the song (and often it is) or characters he's singing for, his voice has never sounded so confident or engaging.
"If you're writing novels, you have to know where you're going to shelve them; you have fiction and nonfiction," Isbell says over the phone from Nashville. "With music, you don't really have to differentiate between the two . . . But you're always in the songs, if they're any good."
It's not hard to imagine a world where Southeastern, an LP from a cleaned-up, happily married guy who's turned his back on his hell-raising past, is a Sunday morning sermon or a sticky-sweet love letter to his new life, but it's neither. Isbell isn't that kind of writer. (Sample tweet from @JasonIsbell: "Trust me folks: rehab is a bargain. Especially if you figure in all the free coffee and Morgan Freeman movies.")
Isbell more often chooses self-deprecation over self-righteousness, a trick he's picked up from the kind of songwriters that inspire him — guys like Warren Zevon, James McMurtry, Randy Newman, and Tom Snider — and he knows that value of interjecting a little hard-earned humor into his songs.
"The humorous thing is not easy," Isbell says. "I mean, none of it's particularly easy, [but] it's more difficult to have a sense of humor in a serious song that it is to take a serious turn in a funny song. I just think that's the way people's lives operate, you know? I mean, there's a lot of jokes told at a funeral."
The black-coffee wit makes Isbell's most bleak observations, most notably "Elephant," hit even harder. A front runner for the "Most Crushing Americana Tune of the Year" award, the song is potently simple, a conversation between the narrator, Andy, and a terminal cancer patient. "There's one thing that's real clear to me / No one dies with dignity," Isbell sings. Given the chance to pull out all the sentimental stops, to tap into a weepy collective consciousness, Isbell writes steely, unflinchingly, and powerfully.
"Yeah, that one . . ." Isbell trails off. "All of them can be hard to sing sometimes, if you're actually paying attention to what you're saying. But that one . . . it's heavy. It's something that everyone has had an experience with, or they will have."
Whether he's drawing blood from his own wounds or embodying powerfully bruised characters — or creating a song like "Live Oak," in which he wonders what character he is ("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") — Isbell writes like a sharpshooter. The key to doing it right, he says, is writing honestly.
"If you tell your story honestly, you're going to come across, too," Isbell says. "As long as I try to write for myself in that sense, and try and get myself into the songs, you know, the things I've done to improve my own character will in turn improve the character of the songs."