Therapy In The Tumbleweeds: Jason Isbell’s ‘Southeastern’
You remember the firsts: First kiss. First time you drove a car. First time you had sex. The smells, the sights, the sounds, it all wedges somewhere in the folds of your brain.
My first listen of Jason Isbell’s Southeastern happened as I sat in the passenger seat of my friend Jay’s electric blue Nissan Versa, coasting towards Joshua Tree National Park. The album’s opener “Cover Me Up” socked me in the gut, rendering my morning coffee inert. I slumped against the seat and stared out at tumbleweeds breezing past dismal advertisements for dismal casinos.
Jay spoke: “I was wondering how he would be once he went sober.” He pointed to the CD slot in the dash. “The first high note in this song and I knew he still had it.” Big smile.
Now, hundreds of giant windmills churning the still-chilly autumn morning air.
The next song marched forward on triumphant major chords, shaking me from that desert trance. “Stockholm,” an anthem about how damn much it can hurt to leave home and heart. On the follower, “Traveling Alone,” Isbell’s wife Amanda duets her agreement.
Crossing over into the Yucca Valley, the land rises into humble hills and you feel the air shift.
Back to the gut-socking. “Elephant” is a conversation between old friends, old lovers, a mixture of both, a mixture of neither. It’s about cancer…or not really; it’s about a lot of other things, too. This is why great songs are great songs, by pure universality of translation – they can mean so much to so many. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard if only because it manages to plumb the depths of despair without remaining lodged in those dark places. Still, I managed tears.
“I just want to fling myself out of the car and go lay down in the sand,” I said.
Ah. Saved from unending salt streaks by a jolt of guitar – “Flying Over Water” is a reprieve. I shake my head and mutter, “This is so good. So, so good.”
We’re somewhere in the Morongo Basin, rocketing past gutted buildings and hollowed-out dreams.
A few miles later, Isbell careens back into my soul with “Live Oak,” another example of poetic duality, the kind of writing you can slip over your own life like a custom-tailored suit. The quietude trails into “Songs That She Sang In The Shower,” with a set of lines instantly, permanently burned into my memory:
On a lark, on a whim, I said “There’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.” And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke.
We were close to Joshua Tree now. It was breakfast time and my stomach grumbled. The sun was out, bouncing off of discarded metal and heating my face.
Excepting the jarring Drive-By Truckerishness of “Super 8,” the last few songs on the album were pleasant, but felt distant. I wasn’t ready for them yet; I was still thinking about all of the others that came before, processing their myriad meanings, marveling at how one man’s metaphors, allusions, and fables could speak to me so directly.
Sometimes music is just noise. Sometimes it’s a good beat, it’s art, it’s poetry, it’s a soundtrack, it’s memories, it’s a space-occupier – and sometimes it’s therapy you didn’t even know you needed.