Out of Your Head
Jason Isbell’s songs go beyond his own emotions to tell other people’s stories
Published: January 22, 2014
Southeastern is not only the best of the five albums Jason Isbell has made as a bandleader since leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007; it’s also one of the very best recordings released by anyone in 2013—it came in at number three on City Paper’s “2013 Top Ten Albums” (Dec. 18, 2013). The album, Isbell’s second solo effort, has often been described as “a sobriety album” or “a marriage album” because he kicked a serious alcohol problem in early 2012 and married his girlfriend Amanda Shires, a fine singer-songwriter herself, in early 2013.
While a few songs refer to the temptations of liquor and the satisfactions of true love, several of the best songs refer to neither. Isbell, who brings his band to the 9:30 Club on Tuesday, insists that it’s not an album about sobriety and marriage but rather an album made possible by sobriety and marriage.
“People talk about it as a getting-sober or falling-in-love record,” he says by phone from his home near the Nashville Airport, “but, to me, the theme is consistency. The earlier albums had some songs that would have fit on this one, songs like ‘Alabama Pines’ and ‘Dress Blues,’ but there were also a lot of songs that people tended to skip over. This one’s a complete piece of work; I tried to make every song a good one. And that was possible because I wasn’t out in the bars getting drunk or lying in bed getting over being drunk. I was able to sit at the table for more hours and do more work. It’s that simple.”
The album’s centerpiece is “Elephant,” as riveting a song as we’re likely to get this decade. It begins simply and quietly, just acoustic guitar, piano, and a world-weary ballad vocal. A man and woman sit on barstools in a working man’s bar in Alabama; she asks him to go home with her. But instead of the expected tale of impersonal sex, we get something very different. “I knew she planned to sleep alone,” Isbell sings; “I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from the floor.”
Why is her hair on the floor? Chemo. Why is he in her bedroom? Trying to be a good friend to someone who’s dying. “I’d sing her classic country songs,” Isbell croons, and suddenly this sounds like one. “She’d get high and sing along,” he adds fondly, cheerfully. The second half of the line, though, is devastating: “She don’t have the spirit for that now.” So what do they do instead? “We burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be, and try to ignore the elephant in the room.”
“About three years ago,” Isbell explains, “I was living above this bar in Sheffield, Alabama, and dating this girl who was a bartender there. She was a big-hearted person who got close to people easily, and she’d tell me stories about them. After a while, the people she talked about started disappearing, like that scene at the end of Rent. Suddenly they weren’t there; they were dying, mostly from cancer.
“That stuck in my mind, and later, when I was on the road, that song came out. I couldn’t give it a happy ending, because I couldn’t see how it could end happily. Most of those stories don’t end happily, and if I had changed it, the song wouldn’t have said as much as I wanted it to. The emotion in that loss wouldn’t have opened up the same way.”
For anyone who has held vigil over the death of a friend or family member, this song, more than any other, captures that impossible search for the right balance of paying attention to the impending death but not too much attention. Isbell gets it so right that it’s a surprise to learn that the song is not autobiographical. He wasn’t that guy in the bedroom; he just heard about the guy in the bedroom and was able to distill the familiar story into powerful song of empathy.
“It’s not a song about what happens to people with cancer,” he insists; “it’s a song about having a friend with an illness that can’t be cured and about being the right kind of friend in that situation. People don’t want to be treated differently because they’re sick. They don’t want that cloud always hanging over the conversation. They want to live out what life they have left. You have to fight your instincts to be overly sympathetic; you have to treat them as if they’re the same people.”
The album includes songs about a Wisconsin murderer, a suburban cul de sac child abuser, an ex-lover who sang Willie Nelson and Dusty Springfield songs in the shower, a father who swallowed too many prescription sedatives, and a rock ’n’ roll singer who doesn’t “wanna die in a Super 8 Motel.” Isbell may be that later character, but he’s not the others, and his ability to get out of his own head and into the heads of other people is crucial to the record’s triumph. Even when he alludes to his own situation, he does so with a certain distance, with a perspective that’s essential to this kind of art.
“To write a song like ‘Elephant,’ you have to have some experience putting yourself in another person’s shoes,” Isbell says. “I’m always trying to figure out what it’s like to be in someone else’s life. A lot of songwriters who are my favorites go through an early period of writing about their own emotions, and then they outgrow that for better or worse. Some of them can connect to other people’s situations; some of them can’t. But if you’re going to be a writer for your whole life, you have to write about something other than yourself, because you don’t have enough time to keep having new experiences. You’d end up describing yourself sitting at a desk, a mirror facing a mirror.”
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit perform at the 9:30 Club Tuesday, Jan. 28.
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