It didn’t work out that way, but the songs on Southeastern would have made for a fine acoustic album. Jason Isbell’s fourth effort since departing the Drive-By Truckers is all about raw and desperate emotions: loneliness, confusion, dejection. Intense feelings that would have contrasted powerfully with spare strums and an unadorned croon, a power apparent during the record’s opening bars.
Over his own patient picking, Isbell (who performs at The Orange Peel on Thursday, Jan. 24) sings with a browbeaten whisper. “A heart on the run / Keeps a hand on the gun,” he trembles. “It can’t trust anyone.” Foreboding slide licks enter soon thereafter, and most of the songs that follow opt for full-on rock ’n’ roll. But Southeastern possesses the kind of intentions that resonate no matter the arrangement.
As it turns out, Isbell’s head really was clearer when he wrote these songs. It’s the first album he’s completed since he quit drinking two years ago, entering rehab at the behest of the woman who has since become his wife. The decision changed his life and likely saved his relationship. It also sharpened his songwriting.
“I had more hours in the day, really, because I wasn’t going out and drinking or recovering from a hangover,” he says. “When I got up to write, I could actually give that all of my focus and all of my energy. So that was a nice thing, and I think that helped out as far as the songwriting goes more than anything else. I started out to make a record that was just me and an acoustic guitar and maybe some piano. A very stripped-down, very quiet album. But then I got bored with that, and the producer got bored with that.”
As one might expect, given the events that preceded them, Southeastern’s songs concern characters who are all at the end of one rope or another. There’s the ex-con from “Live Oak” who can’t outrun his murderous past and the drifter who’s so tired of “Traveling Alone” that he’s haunted by the voices on the radio. But no story here is more harrowing — or more poignant — than the one Isbell spins on “Elephant.”
The narrator sits at a bar, bantering with a female friend. “She said, ‘Andy, you’re taking me home,’” he sings, “but I knew she planned to sleep alone / I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from her floor.” And then Isbell drops a bomb: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / no one dies with dignity.” The elephant they’re trying to ignore is her cancer. They burn joints in effigy and “cry about what [they] used to be,” but it can’t change the truth of her deteriorating condition. As with much of Southeastern, the characters feel so real that it seems impossible that their stories couldn’t be true. But like the majority of Isbell’s songs, “Elephant” is fictional.
“I’m sure it actually happened to somebody,” he says. “It’s fiction, as most of my stories are. They're combinations of stories, and I try to combine people and their characteristics and make up a story. Songs, they don’t really have to be true or not true. They don’t file them that way. If you think about movies or books, you have a fiction or nonfiction section, or you have a documentaries section or a nondocumentaries section. But for songs, you can do it either way. You can mix it up. You can write things that happened or didn’t happen.”
As with quitting the bottle, Isbell says that improving as a songwriter is all about the effort you put into it. Ridding himself of his vice has allowed him to truly throw himself full-force into his art. And if this is the kind of album he was capable of after about a year of living clean, just imagine what a few more might do for his discipline.
“It’s doing the work,” he says. “That’s the only thing that I believe will make any difference for any songwriter. The motivation’s always there. If you’re for real, and you’re a real writer, you don’t need to be inspired. I think [the painter] Chuck Close said one time in an interview that ‘inspiration is for amateurs.’ You just show up and get to work. I believe that’s true. I think that the motivation to actually spend the time on what you’re creating is the hard part.”
who: Jason Isbell with Holly Williams
where: The Orange Peel, theorangepeel.net
when: Thursday, Jan. 23, at 9 p.m.
$20 advance/$23 day of show