Reinventing Modern Country
In a world where the music in the country-folk fusion vein can quickly turn into cliché-laden tunes that either pander to stereotypical American values and symbols or degenerate into love songs vague enough for widespread emotional appeal, it’s good to hear an artist that keeps it real. This can undoubtedly be said about Jason Isbell, the Alabama singer-songwriter and past member of the southern rock outfit Drive-By Truckers. His fourth album, Southeastern , seems to accomplish all the aspirations of mainstream country music while maintaining a fresh and emotional authenticity that is hard to find in any genre in contemporary rock music.
The album’s first track, “Cover Me Up,” is an acoustic serenade with a lyrical sincerity that matches the raw quality of Isbell’s voice during the chorus. Several songs on the album, including “Elephant” and “Live Oak” are done in similar fashions, but despite the acoustic quality of these three songs, Isbell keeps them from sounding repetitive by changing the tone of his lyrics, as well as utilizing ballad on “Live Oak,” in the style of a modern country ballad. He tells a story distinctly southern, but utilizes a more complex and less commercial song format. On Southeastern‘s non-acoustic songs, Isbell’s instrumentation still remains relatively simple, layering minimal drums, violins, and electric guitars over most tracks. This adds a nice layer of instrumentation that doesn’t detract from the lyric-based nature of his songs, while providing room for some nice instrumental segues between primarily two instruments on songs like “New South Wales.”
The only track that really feels out of place on Southeastern is “Super 8,” which is loud and rowdy in a Southern-rock sense and relies on a driving electric guitar to keep the song moving forward. The song’s chorus (“I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel / Just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well / If I ever get back to Bristol / I’m better off sleeping in a county jail”) seems out of place and, in comparison to the rest of the album, really awkward; it breaks from the down-to-Earth, sincere elements of the album’s other songs. Despite this track, Southeastern stays relatively cohesive while offering something fresh that merits a listen from all appreciators of rock and its subgenres, as well as die-hard country fans looking to hear something new.