Jason Isbell – “Elephant”

Jason Isbell - Photo by Michael Wilson
Jason Isbell – Photo by Michael Wilson

On Tuesday, Alabama-native Jason Isbell will release Southeastern (Amazon MP3), his best album yet.

On more than one occasion I’ve said that if I could have anyone’s voice, it would be Isbell’s. That hasn’t changed, but with this album it’s his writing that won me over. Newly married to fiddler Amanda Shires who guided him to rehab just a few months after the two started dating, Isbell has had plenty of life altering events to write about (hear more about his recovery in this NPR interview). However, with this album he still mostly writes about other characters in the first person. As he told MTV’s The Hive, many of the characters in his songs are not just other people, but a group of others meshed into one. Here’s what he said about “Elephant”, a song that paints a picture of the relationship between a woman fighting cancer and a male drinking buddy as they try to avoid the elephant in the room and make light of her situation.

“They’re all based on things that really happened, but that one, like almost all the songs I write, has characters that are based on other characters. The two people in that song aren’t two people that I know, but each of them is two or three people that I know. That relationship in that particular song became very important to me. I wept for those two people, even though they don’t exist in real life. But it was an amalgamation of people I’ve known that have dealt with that kind of thing.”

A few weeks ago, I caught a private show with Isbell and Shires at Rockwood Music Hall where a packed room of press and industry folks hung on every word sung. Isbell’s soulful performance comes across as if it’s totally effortless, but at the same time, not lacking in an ounce of passion. As the quote above notes and as you get a sense when you listen to the album, it doesn’t matter that the characters aren’t perfectly represented by one body and soul. Isbell is deeply connected to each one. And the listener (or at least this one) can’t help but follow suit.

Isbell is one of many on the lineup at Newport next month. He also hits Bonnaroo this weekend.