Jason Isbell has always been closely associated with the groups he’s been a part of: Drive-By Truckers and, more recently, The 400 Unit, with whom he’s released two albums. While members of the latter step in to back him up on Southeastern, for the first time since his 2007 solo debut, Sirens Of The Ditch, listeners are able to hear an unfiltered representation of this Alabamian prodigy, and the results are so stellar it’s not hyperbole to say that he could be his generation’s answer to Steve Earle.
Thankfully, unlike Earle, Isbell learned to face his demons relatively early, and that tone is immediately set via the opener “Cover Me Up,” an acoustic number that sees Isbell’s voice soaring above twangy flourishes as he confesses, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever this time.” While most artists are scared that sobriety will hinder their writing, it seems as if it’s inspired Isbell to write some of his most personal songs to date. (Marrying Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle and sings on “Traveling Alone,” probably didn’t hurt, either.) It’s always been difficult to tell fact from the fiction with Isbell since his writing is steeped in so much Southern mythology. That tendency, which defines some his most popular DBT songs like “Decoration Day,” is continued on “Flying Over Water,” which sees him revisiting his roots to recount a story of “Daddy’s little empire / Built by hands and built by slaves.” Things may get sweaty when Isbell sings, “In the heat I saw you rising from the dirt,” but listeners can feel that burn when he rips a distortion-drenched guitar solo during the song’s climax. Country music is a genre where authenticity is paramount and there’s no question that when Isbell sings about topics that might be foreign to city dwellers, it comes from a place of experience. Even when the protagonist has a different name—like Andy on “Elephant,” a somber ballad that tells the story of his friendship with a terminally ill woman with sharecropper eyes—there’s something in Isbell’s voice that’s hauntingly honest when he sings about doing his best to “try to ignore the elephant somehow.” As a respite, these types of sentiments are broken up by the occasional fun honky-tonk like “Super 8,” but for the most part Southeastern is pretty serious business. Then again, so is life and the one that Isbell has lived thus far is certainly worth documenting, especially when the songs supporting it are this stunning.