As we enter the second week of our top 10 rundown, we reach the top 5. However, we don’t actually have a number 5 as two albums released 39 years apart, tied for the number 4 spot. AUK writer Pete Churchill gives us his personal take on the first of those; an album that our writers decided has only been bettered by three other albums ever.
Back around the time this album was released in 2013 Jason Isbell was happily playing alongside wife Amanda Shires in a tiny Dorset pub as she toured her ‘Down Fell the Doves’ album. Graciously, as she raved about the particularly potent local brew, Shires allowed hubby to play one track from his new album and so it was that about 35 locals heard Jason sing ‘Traveling Alone’, all of us completely unaware that we were witnessing Mr Isbell’s launch into the Americana stratosphere.
If it can be said that the heart of great Americana music is the songwriting then ‘Southeastern’ is a masterclass. The album is, in the main, a fairly low-key affair, driven as it is with acoustic guitar and keys and only sporadic hints at his Drive-By Truckers roots.
Isbell is particularly adept at using darkly witty lyrics within songs that may have, at their heart, an underlying sadness. ‘Songs That She Sang in The Shower’ is basically a song about being dumped but the opening verse is a comic joy. In ‘Elephant’ we have what may be the most beautiful and honest song ever written about living with terminal cancer. It is gut-wrenching stuff but even here Isbell’s dark humour is allowed to prosper; each line an emotional roller coaster, from a smile to a tear in a heartbeat or semiquaver.
If each song here tells a story, from cancer to break-up, from reflections on youth to bar room brawls, then Isbell, like all great vocalists, makes every word sound personal. It is an achingly beautiful album elevated by Isbell’s ability to wring the emotion out of every brilliantly composed lyric.