Jason Isbell defines his strength as the ability to throw daggers at his own vulnerabilities, and this quality is what stands out in his fourth full length record. Southeastern is not your average romp in the Americana landscape, though the typical themes of heartbreak and loss certainly permeate the storytelling. What’s different here is the brutal honesty with which stories are presented, including a few expletives here and there for good measure. No, this is not the record to bring home to the faint of heart, even though his voice is crisp and full of passion and his music strays little from traditional American arrangements. Jason’s prose and perspective can at times be downright uncomfortable, but undeniable and rooted in a powerful truth about the way things are. This intensity never lets up for the duration of the record.
Ranging from drunken brawls and the fear of dying at the ‘Super 8′ to dealing with the ‘Elephant’ in the room, the unspeakable awkwardness that comes when avoiding talking about the cancer that will eventually win, the stories resonate with anyone on the edge of their own sanity and certainly are gut check to those who think they have control. Jason paints vivid pictures with words, and themes of pain and coping are presented with a brutal perspective. Call it an album full of knock out quality one liners. “On a lark, on a whim / I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them / Then his fist cut the smoke / I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke”. ‘Songs That She Sang in the Shower’ is as much about emotional turmoil and physical abuse as it is about having the courage to find happiness in the least likely of places. Certainly Jason has no trouble searching deep within himself or the people around him as he presents suffering as a truth and fact of life. But the greatest moment of awakening occurs when he shifts perspective and looks at the big picture.
“You should know compared to people on a global scale our kind has had it relatively easy”. It is somewhat of an ironic message on ‘Relatively Easy’ given that the album plays like an apology for a continual drunken rage that created a deep and penetrating chasm. On the other hand, it is a stark sobering reality that in the midst of of all the inevitable pain and suffering, we still have it better than most. This is not exactly the stuff of Hollywood endings, but then again, Jason Isbell probably despises them. Instead, he prefers to turn things on their head and talk about things seemingly unspeakable. The result of his efforts is a celebration of the strength of his character and like his personal journey, Southeastern is story full of meaning and it commands the listener’s full attention.