Since maybe late February (when it leaked online), my favorite record of the year has been the Flaming Lips’ The Terror. The record’s unyielding tone of desperation and desolation appeals to me. Its abstraction and noise play nicely with the cacophony one might experience in one’s head, particularly when one finds him- or herself in a particularly despairing mood, for whatever reason (or no reason at all), in which every voice encountered, every sentiment expressed, every attempt made at connection, everything slips down a hole somewhere inside one’s heart and disappears. Everything tastes sour. Everything sounds like static, like Psychocandy and Loveless, with melodies extracted from them, turned up way too loud. The Terror finds space in the fuzz, like a seed in soil, germinating in all directions.
Still, The Terror is merely an acknowledgement, proof of life inside and outside the noise. What it isn’t is a balmâ€”an agent of comfort. For that, one might turn to new records by Americana artists I have long reveredâ€”Steve Earle (The Low Highway), Patty Griffin (American Kid), and Jason Isbell (Southeastern). Griffin’s voice is soothing and maternal as she spins her stories, while still maintaining the inherent sexiness I love (yes, I recognize the Oedipal sentiment in that commentâ€”thanks for noticing). Earle’s strengths as a storyteller are prodigious, and he’s filled his record full of high and low tales, by turns menacing (“Calico County”) and beautiful (“Remember Me”).
Neither of them hit me like I was hit by the first verse of “Cover Me Up,” the opening song on Southeastern. A lone acoustic guitar figure gives way to Isbell’s distinctive tenor, singing at once of regret and redemption:
A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun
You can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more
Tried to shoot out the sun
Days when we raged we flew off the page
Such damage was done
But I made it through, ’cause somebody knew
I was meant for someone
Writers who have reviewed Southeastern have cited “Cover Me Up” as a paean to Isbell’s sobriety (“But I sobered up and swore off that stuff / Forever, this time”), and that’s certainly there, but to these ears, the song is chiefly about the redeeming value of the relationship that led to the desire for sobriety, to avoid hurting others, more so than to avoid hurting himself. The recurring refrain “we ain’t leaving this room” speaks to the need for shelter and safety, as much to protect others from himself, as to enable him to curl up in the warmth of his lover’s touch and caring. Salvation (more emotional than spiritual) is found by hunkering down in that safe place, with someone who might still be a little afraid of him, and who recognizes he might be a little afraid of himself.
It’s a sentiment I recognize from many preceding sourcesâ€”from the songs of Townes Van Zandt and Nanci Griffith, to the stories of Alice Munro and Raymond Carver, how they explore quiet lives in miniature, tell their tales in sparing fashion, each line bearing the full weight of that life. There’s redemption to be had here, whereas in, say, Carver’s work, that wasn’t always the case. Either way, “Cover Me Up” knocked me sideways the first time I heard it.
There were even more striking moments to come.
“Songs that She Sang in the Shower” is another, a song shot through with regret, memory, and the disgust the narrator has for himself, for how badly he’s blown it. An ill-considered, drunken insult directed at a man in a bar results in a black eye and the breaking of the final straw with the narrator’s old lady, who on the drive home, asks “if I had considered the prospect of living alone.” She leaves, and he indeed finds himself “in a room by myself / Looks like I’m here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else.”
The saddest part comes during the choruses, where he ruminates on her absence, manifested in how he can still hear her singing in the showerâ€”songs like “Breakfast in Bed,” “Wish You Were Here,” and “Yesterday’s Wine”â€”songs he’ll never again be able to hear without thinking of her, and of what he let slip through his hands. It’s an all-too-true sentimentâ€”the power of music and memory to hurt as well as they heal, how impossible it is to burn through enough time to forget, or to avoid at least a twinge of pain, when the right song comes on the jukebox or radio.
The pain is palpable in â€œElephant,â€ a harrowing first-person account of a man watching his friend die from cancer. He tries to maintain some semblance of normalcy around her, to give her some means by which to experience pleasure, as she slowly slides away:
But Iâ€™d sing her classic country songs and sheâ€™d get high and sing along
She donâ€™t have a voice to sing with now
We burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be
How do you give someone so sick some hope or happiness, in such a desperate situation, to keep her from dying alone, and lonely? He knows sheâ€™s going to go missing at some point, sooner rather than later, and the reality does not escape him:
Iâ€™ve buried her a thousand times, given up my place in line
But I donâ€™t give a damn about that now
Thereâ€™s one thing thatâ€™s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow
Itâ€™s heavier-than-heavy stuff, but Isbell carries it off with a deft touch, as he does in â€œYvette,â€ in which the teenage protagonist watches as a friend endures all manner of abuse at the hands of her father.
Iâ€™ve watched you in class, your eyes are cut glass and you stay covered up
Head to your toes, so nobody will notice you â€¦
Your mother seems nice, I donâ€™t understand why she wonâ€™t say anything
As if she canâ€™t see who he turned out to be
The boy at first feels helpless; he feels his friendâ€™s shame and pain at a time in their lives when the two of them should merely be feeding on awkward affection, figuring out how to address their crushes and still get their homework done on time. Thereâ€™s no such innocence to be found here, though, as Isbell calmly fills the songâ€™s refrains with the young manâ€™s plan to deal with his friendâ€™s abuser:
I might not be a man yet, but your father will never be
So I load up my Weatherby
I let out my breath, and I couple with death, I couple with death
In the brilliant final verse, he sees the fatherâ€™s silhouette in the girlâ€™s window, and the fate of all of them seems sealed. â€œSaw him hold you that way,â€ Isbell sings, â€œHe wonâ€™t hold you that way anymore.â€ â€œYvetteâ€ ends there, leaving the listener to guess what the true ending is.
Though Southeastern is most effective in its slower, more contemplative moments, Isbellâ€™s skill and intensity donâ€™t lag when the pace picks up. â€œStockholmâ€â€™s stuttering rhythm propels a meditation on commitment (and features a lovely harmony vocal from Kim Richey). â€œTraveling Aloneâ€ is a midtempo recognition of love and the need for companionship on oneâ€™s journey (â€œI know every town worth passing through / What good does knowing do / With no one to show it to?â€). “Flying Over Water” cracks with arena-sized sonics (particularly the drum sound) and the kind of power chord thunder that Earle used to great effect back in the late Eighties. And the over-amped garage band stomp of “Super 8” is perfect accompaniment to Isbell’s comic tale of a drunken evening’s grody aftermath.
“Super 8″‘s sound is anomalous to just about everything else on Southeastern, but it doesn’t come off as filler. There’s really no filler on this record, nor apology. Think of Isbell’s best songsâ€””Dress Blues,” “Alabama Pines,” “The Last Song I Will Write,” “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” “Codeine”â€”and the stories they told. They were songs of deep truth, played simply and powerfully, sung with conviction, with supple, often beautiful melodies, and just enough twang to make old-school country fans proud. Â Southeastern is full with such songs; I’ll be singing them for years to come.