For the Sake of the Song: Jason Isbell “The Life You Chose”

Photo: Danny Clinch

Trying to choose a favourite out of the almost faultless catalogue of songs Jason Isbell has put out feels like a daunting, nigh impossible, task, but it dawned on me just recently as I was enjoying to ‘Something More Than Free’ for the umpteenth time that for me, the song I go back to in my mind more often than any other – yes, even ‘Cover Me Up’ – is ‘The Life You Chose’.

No question Isbell is a master at painting a picture with words, but for me, there is simply no better example of that than the opening of ‘The Life You Chose’: “Who are you if not the one I met / One July night before the town went wet? / Jack and coke in your mama’s car / You were reading The Bell Jar.” It completely encapsulates teenage friendship and romance, right down to the choice of reading material and alcohol, and even the little added detail of the person in question being in their “mama’s car” rather than affording their own.

But more than just looking back on days gone by, the song asks the pressing present question of if the person the narrator so loved then is now living the life they want to, not just the one that they fell into. “Are you living the life you chose? / Are you living the life that chose you? Are you taking a grown up dose? / Do you live with a man who knows you? / Like I thought I did back then,” Isbell asks on the chorus, before adding the real gut punch: “But I guess I never did / Did I kid?”

As is Isbell’s gift, he adds further wonderful tangibility to the song when we find out that our narrator had a workplace accident after high school and got a payout (“I got lucky when I finished school / Lost three fingers to a faulty tool / Settled out of court, I’m no one’s fool”) and that he still longs for a way out a what is perhaps a life he too didn’t choose for himself (“There’s plenty left to make a getaway / I’ve spent enough nights in the bluegrass state / We could go somewhere where people stay up late / Or just somewhere new”). It’s the bridge however that, in my humble opinion, contains the most heartbreaking four lines Isbell has ever written: “Here I am inviting you to throw your life away / Victim of nostalgia maybe Tanqueray / Just tonight I realized that I am still in your backseat / Nothing I’ve had since has meant a thing to me.”

In Greek, the word nostalgia translates literally as “the pain from an old wound”, and that’s exactly the kind of feeling that ‘The Life You Chose’ brings up in me, listen after listen; it’s such a rare emotion that it manages to hit in me, however, that I’m still excited to be in that place every single time I hear the song, and I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.

About Helen Jones 134 Articles
North West based lover of country and Americana.
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keith hargreaves

Lovely piece Helen

Alison Jennings

Isbell’s vocals project both vulnerability and strength, and then there’s the instruments, and the lyrics , , , ,A true master who keeps getting better.