I put off writing up a 2013 Best of so far list until I got a chance to listen to Jason Isbell’s latest, Southeastern, that was released recently. I’d heard enough of it to know I’d like it, but now that I’ve had time to soak with it, I’d say it’s easily the best album I’ve heard this year.
The record was getting a lot of press in places you’d not expect to see (feature story in the Sunday New York Times magazine, Wall Street Journal) and some you would (all over NPR). This was largely because of the back story that’s straight out of a Behind the Music episode – early fame (with the Drive-By Truckers), promising solo career, and a whole lot of Jack Daniels. But of course, there’s redemption; he cleaned up, got the girl (marrying Amanda Shires, herself a talented musician) and wrote a record about it.
Isbell’s always been a top-notch songwriter, having penned some of the Truckers’ best songs (“Goddamn Lonely Love”, “Outfit”) and winning an Americana Music award last year for “Alabama Pines”. On Southeastern, he takes his craft to a whole other level. He honestly and unsparingly chronicles the turmoil his life had been in (drinking Listerine and sobering up with the help of Pedialyte), hating who he’d become and finally saying enough and finding love and stability. There’s not a clunker on the record and to me he firmly entrenches himself with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Ryan Bingham as the best young American songwriters going right now.
The arrangements on the record fairly spare, matching the simple black and white album cover photo of Isbell staring back frankly. The tracks are driven by Isbell on his Martin acoustic with occasional slide or electric guitar layered on top. There are some strings, including Shires’ fiddle on “Travelling Alone”. Members of Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit chip in on, but there are only two songs you could call flat out rockers. The most powerful song on the record, “Elephant” (video below) is simply Isbell on acoustic singing about watching a friend die of cancer. It’s a gut wrenching song.
Isbell’s out on tour right now, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him at the Newport Folk Festival next month. If you’re a fan of great songcraft, I can’t recommend this record enough. It’s an A+
The first half of this year has been pretty good for me, as several of my favorite acts have dropped new releases. And, as I’ve written here before, I’m still getting twangier as I get older. Here are a few of my faves, listed alphabetically:
Dawes – Stories Don’t End
Patty Griffin – American Kid
John Moreland – In The Throes
Mount Moriah – Miracle Temple
My Bloody Valentine – mbv
Kurt Vile – Wakin On A Pretty Daze
Yo La Tengo – Fade
A couple of releases I’m looking forward to later this year (with release date):
Mavis Staples – One True Vine (6/25)
Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (9/3)
Elvis Costello & The Roots – Wise Up Ghost (9/17)