MusicRecord Reviews

Jason Isbell: Southeastern

Gallows humor is a hallmark of country music. Even the sappiest cowboy balladeer knows the value of a cheap laugh. Most every song on Southeastern finds Jason Isbell in the role of old sad bastard, but the album is saved by those few moments where he meets his sorrows with a joke.

“Elephant” might be the finest example of this. The singer describes a friend’s illness, and while he despairs, the friend opts for hollow humor: “When she was drunk she made cancer jokes.” The song thrives on this duality and on Isbell’s knack for description in lines that refer to the friend’s “sharecropper eyes,” her way of sitting “Cross-legged on a barstool/ like nobody sits anymore.”

Throughout the record, Isbell’s lyrics are so well-crafted that there’s a buoyancy to even the most harrowing words. The snap of the Nashville hook line is everywhere to be heard and often with a biting edge. “His woman took the kids/ And he took Klonopin,” Isbell sings on “Relatively Easy.” The gothic “Yvette” is compelling in its eeriness, its narrator a young vigilante who sounds both righteous and fragile, more Randy Newman than Johnny Cash.

Easily the best moment on the record is “Super 8,” a cross between Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps.” The singer is an aging rocker having a rough night. The song starts with the line, “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel”—and it just gets better from there. 4 out of 5.