A year-and-a-half sober, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell has learned that the bottle was never his muse. "Well, it gives me a whole lot more time to work," Isbell says of sobriety. "You know, when I was drinking a lot, I was spending quite a few hours a day drinking, and then two or three hours at least after I got up just trying to situate myself from the night before."
Still, you write what you know, and Isbell has a deep well of stories to draw on from his wilder days, first with the hard-rocking Drive-By Truckers and since then as a frontman with his own backing band, the 400 Unit. The songs on his latest solo album, Southeastern, were all written after he finished rehab, but they contain plenty of references to hard living. "Where's that liquor cart?/ Maybe we should't start/ But I can't for the life of me say why," Isbell sings on the track "Flying Over Water."
Southeastern might also hold the record for a non-hip-hop album with the most rhyme schemes involving pharmaceuticals, including "deep end/Klonopin," "Pedialyte/remember it right," and "turn 16/benzodiazepine." Isbell says he was never addicted to prescription meds, but living on the road, a working knowledge of drug combinations — what keeps you awake, what puts you to sleep, what puts you to sleep forever — was de rigueur. "If you're gonna look over the edge, you have to know what sort of things will push you on over," Isbell says.
Musically, Isbell has never sounded better than on Southeastern. Far removed from the three-guitarist onslaught of the Drive-By Truckers years, Isbell and producer David Cobb favor sparser, rangier arrangements for the most part. In the quietest moments, Isbell and the band can wring tears from a piano, a six-string, and a voice that sounds as gorgeously road-worn as Willie Nelson's guitar.
Every bit of fat has been trimmed from the album, so that when Isbell does go for rock 'n' roll broke — as on the solo at the end of "Flying Over Water" or the entire track "Super 8" — it feels less like revelry and more like frightening intensity. And you get the sense that's exactly what he's going for.
"I don't think I ever really celebrated life so much as just try to paint it in the appropriate light," Isbell says. So when, on "Super 8," he sings, "Saw my guts, saw my glory/ It would make a great story/ If I ever could remember it right," he's obviously not bragging about the wild party that happened last night. He's just stating the facts of a lifestyle he's left behind.
Isbell is, as ever, the poet laureate of the trailer park, but he says he's singing more personal lyrics than ever before. "I'm certainly in there on all of them," he says. "Some of the songs, I started off with a personal idea, a private idea, and then I created characters to flesh that out." There's a song about child molestation ("Yvette"), another that deals with a friend's suicide ("Relatively Easy"), and a stanza (in "Different Days") about a 16-year-old who runs away from home and sells herself for drugs.
And then there's "Elephant," a tune about cancer that includes the all-too-true line "Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone." The lyrics are suffused with odd personal details — the dying woman's cross-legged posture on a barstool, the narrator's taste for Seagram's, the thought of a missed opportunity for sex with someone who's too weak to manage it now. "When someone gets sick and they die, there are things you remember that are surprising to you," Isbell says.
The centerpiece on the album is "Live Oak," a chilling piece of Southern Gothic balladry about a man who runs from the law and finds love where he lands. "There's a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be/ And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me," goes the refrain, sung at first without musical accompaniment, to haunting effect. "And I wonder who she's pining for on nights I'm not around/ Could it be the man who did the things I'm living down?"
The song is autobiographical in its own way, but the man walking beside Isbell is his old drinking self, not some criminal. "That one started out as a concern that when I cleaned my life up and became more of a citizen, more of a grown-up, I was concerned with what things I would lose and what would be different about me," Isbell says. "There's a certain wildness and a kind of a feral attitude that you have when you're young that goes away if you manage to make it into adulthood and old age. After that, it gradually trickles out of you. And I think that's a loss that's to be lamented."