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

Jun 6, 2013
Originally published on June 6, 2013 3:18 pm

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 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of a new album by Jason Isbell, a singer-songwriter who came to prominence as a member of the Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers. He left that band in 2007, in part because of the substance abuse problems he mentions in his new solo album "Southeastern."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVER ME UP")

JASON ISBELL: (singing) A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun. You can't trust anyone. I was so sure what I needed was more. Then I'd shoot out the sun. In days when we raged we flew off the page. Such damage is done. I made it through to somebody new. I was meant for someone.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: When Jason Isbell was part of the Drive-By Truckers, his guitar contributed to the band's sometimes magnificent squall of noise and his songwriting to the eloquence that raised the band high in the Southern Rock pantheon. But the Truckers were led by two first rate songwriters: Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.

Whatever the backstage drama that led to Isbell's departure, from a purely artistic standpoint, a parting of the ways now seems inevitable. Especially when you hear the meticulously detailed, frequently much more quiet music, Isbell is making as a solo act.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING ALONE")

ISBELL: (singing) Mountains rough this time of year. Close the highway down. They don't warn the town. And I've been fighting second gear 15 miles or so trying to beat the angry snow. And I know every town worth passing through. What good does knowing do with no one to show it to? And I've grown tired of traveling alone. Tired of traveling alone. I've grown tired of traveling alone. Won't you ride with me? I've grown tired...

TUCKER: Isbell has been releasing his own albums since leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, frequently with a band called the 400 Unit, named after a psychiatric ward. Which gives you some idea 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 this 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONGS THAT SHE SANG IN THE SHOWER")

ISBELL: (singing) On a lark, on a whim, I said there's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them. And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke. And in the car heading home she asked if I had considered the prospect of living alone. With a steak held to my eye, I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her good-bye.

(singing) And another brief chapter without any answers flew by. And the songs that she sang in the shower are stuck in my head...

TUCKER: At one point in that song, called "Songs That She Sang in the Shower," Isbell says it looks like I'm here with a guy that I judge worse than anyone else. And you know that the guy he's referring to is himself. The words and music are scrubbed clean of self pity and instead, give off an energetic ruefulness of a kind that's one of the best combinations of sobriety and clarity.

And Isbell has by no means forsaken his wild side. Look no further for proof of this than the careening honky tonk blast called "Super 8."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER 8")

ISBELL: (singing) Don't want to die in a Super 8 motel just because somebody's evening didn't go so well. If I ever get back to Bristol I'm better off sleeping in the county jail. Don't want to die in a Super 8 motel. Having such a scene...

TUCKER: "Southeastern" combines rock, folk, and country music in a manner that permits Jason 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 '70s and Hall's kind of straightforward storytelling is exactly the right direction to be going in. But in another recent interview, he said he's been reading Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" to which I would say Jason, enjoy, and thank god and the 12 steps that you are not Raskolnikov.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Jason Isbell's new solo album "Southeastern." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.