Jason Isbell was a major part of The Drive-By Truckers’ songwriting success the past decade, his talents alongside the songwriting of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley providing some of the most memorable country and folk concoctions in recent memory. After leaving in 2007 to pursue a solo career, fans wondered which direction he would pursue. One of the reasons for his departure from The Drive-By Truckers was a consuming alcoholism that hindered his collaboration process with others. As a result, it would not have been surprising to expect a darkly harrowing blend of folk and country. While his solo material invokes a wide range of emotions, it isn’t as melancholic as one would presume. His most recent album, Southeastern, benefits from a mixture of longing romanticism and tired loneliness, the latter shown fully on the beautiful track “Traveling Alone”. “I’ve grown tired of riding alone, won’t you ride with me?” he croons with a beautiful twang. On Southeastern, it’s hard to say no in response.
One of the main draws of Southeastern is its lack of pretension. The arrangements are easily engrossing, devoid of any overly forced twists. Southeastern is an album listeners can jump into, and immediately enjoy. The variety provides something for both the sappy romantics and barroom excitement. The likes of “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone” are heart-tugging love songs, the former opening the album with an affirmative longing over gentle acoustic strums and distant electric twangs. “”Girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room ’til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom,” Isbell sings here, singing of a new love found and the mutual determination to keep the relationship afloat. Isbell shows a mature self-reflection throughout the album, touching on the importance of love on tracks like these. Flourishes of additional instruments, like the string flourishes and touch of keys on “Songs That She Sang in the Shower”, breathe extra life into songs that are already very moving, thanks to Isbell’s naturalistic songwriting and his smooth-as-butter vocals.
Still, as a member of Drive-By Truckers, it would be odd if Isbell released an album without any rockers. Efforts like “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8” rock just the right amount, the former propelled by bursts of infectious distortion that inject an anthemic fervor into a track fit nicely for radio. “Super 8” is the album’s most jolted effort, a true flash of energy ideal for a raucous dance at a southern bar. Isbell plays with a conventional series of heavy guitar riffs accompanied by quick twangs, but it’s his ability to shift his vocals from the somber longing of a track like “Traveling Alone” to the celebratory youthfulness of “Super 8”. Isbell never shifts personalities, per say, but we are certainly shown several shades of it. Unlike most country and folk releases, which tread either on one side of ballads or rockers, Isbell is daring enough to incorporate both into the overall equation. Even if there are some dull instances of both – like the complacent spoken-word tenderness of “Live Oak” dragging too long, and the midtempo “Yvette” showing an overly sappy chorus – Isbell never truly stumbles on Southeastern. There are redeeming parts on each of the 12 tracks.
By most accounts, Isbell’s solo career has been a flying success since his departure from The Drive-By Truckers in 2007. Isbell’s previous album, Here We Rest, showed his outstanding ability to construct narratives based on the typical characters in a small town, and now his best all-around solo release to date – Southeastern – shows his tendency to write songs for all types of listeners, from the love-doting romantics to the stubborn yet energetic barroom wanderers. Southeastern won’t wow with any sort of stylistic innovation, but it still fills a void. There are not enough immediately accessible country-folk releases on the independent circuit today; most contemporary releases of that ilk either lack engaging simplicity or daring turns. Isbell manages to tread the line between both, and it results in a pleasing album with Southeastern.