Earlier this year, when the AP.net staff ranked its collective favorite albums from the first half of 2013, the list was populated largely by critical favorites from the year’s first six months (The National, Kanye West, Vampire Weekend, Deafheaven, and Justin Timberlake, to name a few), as well as by a few scene staples like Fall Out Boy and Paramore. But amidst the big names and the usual suspects, there was a record by a country music singer/songwriter named Jason Isbell, somehow managing to sneak into the list at number eight.
Almost five months later, as the year winds down and the time for album-of-the-year lists draws near, I find myself returning to that record—called Southeastern—more than virtually anything released this year. More than once, I’ve woken up at night with this album’s soaring melodies, haunting lyrics, sparse instrumentation, and Isbell’s weather-worn tenor ringing in my mind. The album’s best song, an acoustic heartbreaker called “Elephant” keeps randomly punctuating my dreams for no apparent reason other than it’s a damn fantastic piece of songwriting. And I repeatedly find myself playing the strains of the mission-statement opening, “Cover Me Up,” whenever I pick up my acoustic guitar between busy freelance writing assignments.
But all that is precisely what is so special about Southeastern. It’s not necessarily an album that hits you right away (though Isbell certainly does know his way around a hook; see the anthemic rocker that is “Flying Over Water”), but rather, one that takes root in your mind and grows more inescapable with each passing day. The aforementioned “Elephant” is the best example of this phenomenon, and it might be the year’s finest accomplishment in songwriting as a result. Written with striking simplicity, in no more than two verses and multiple chorus/refrain sections, “Elephant” is not the most melodically striking song on Southeastern. That title could belong to any number of tracks, from “Cover Me Up,” which proudly and poignantly posits this album as Isbell’s “sober record,” to “Relatively Easy,” the album’s sweeping and euphoric closing track.
Instead, “Elephant” cuts deep and digs in with its lyrics, which tell the story of the narrator (a man by the name of “Andy”) and his friendship with a woman who is slowly dying of cancer. We never learn the nature of the relationship between the two characters, but we see their care for one another reflected in Isbell’s measured and mournful words. He drinks with her—at the bar or in the morning with “Seagram’s in a coffee cup,” it makes no difference; he puts her to bed and sweeps her hair off the floor as it falls from her head; he sings her “classic country songs” and ignores the sound of her voice, made weak by her disease, cracking on the choruses; and he smokes pot with her and laughs along with her jokes, all in an effort to “try to ignore the elephant” that is her terminal diagnosis. By the time the end of the song rolls around, bringing Isbell’s weighty realization with it (“If there’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity”), it’s drained you.
“Elephant” is only 3:38 in length, and yet Isbell somehow manages to fit more feeling and more pieces of unforgettable lyricism into that time (“Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone” halfway through, or “I buried her a thousand times, giving up my place in line/But I don’t give a damn about that now” near the end) than most artists can manage over the course of an entire album. The song isn’t the exception, either: “Traveling Alone,” punctuated by a gorgeous violin line from Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, is one of the greatest paeans to loneliness ever recorded (in the genre that produced “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” no less), while “Live Oak” is an epic yarn of a reformed killer who runs away from his past, only to fall in love with a girl more drawn to his wickedness than to his good side. When he feels himself slipping into his old ways, he kills the girl so that he can continue hiding his secrets and running from his past, a contradictory twist worthy of a screenplay treatment. Even “Super 8,” one of the album’s few instances of jaunty tempos and electric guitars, wryly captures the spirit of a near-death experience at the hand of alcohol addiction.
Southeastern remains bleak and downbeat for the majority of its runtime, a drab tone that makes the life-affirming finale that is “Relatively Easy” that much more powerful. This album may be Isbell’s “sober record,” but it’s not a triumph, and nobody is pretending that the battle was easy or the costs anything but great. Instead, it’s a slow and cautious rise from the ashes, a shaking off of all of the hazy, fractured nights and of the countless bad decisions brought on by addiction, and a vow to move forward, to be better.
Even “Relatively Easy,” with its inherently uplifting riff melody, is a bracingly sad song, juxtaposing images of Isbell’s wild past (“I broke the law boys, shooting out the windows of my loft boys/When they picked me up I made a big noise/Everything to blame except my mind”) with his sober and settled-down present (“I should say I keep your picture with me everyday/The evenings now are relatively easy/Here with you there’s always something to look forward to/My lonely heart beats relatively easy”). It’s a resilient end to a record that never pulls its punches or portrays addiction as anything other than the destructive and lonesome force that it is, and it’s the finishing touch that makes Southeastern arguably the most complete and emotionally moving album of the year. There’s a real dynamic arc here, not just for the album as a whole, but also within each and every individual song, and whether or not you’ve gravitated toward county music in the past, that unrivaled depth of passion makes this record an absolute essential.