Jason Isbell’s brilliant songwriting culminates with ‘Southeastern’

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    Jason Isbell performs during Stones Fest NYC in May, 2013 in New York City.


  • Jason Isbell performs during Stones Fest NYC in May, 2013 in New York City.
    Jason Isbell performs during Stones Fest NYC in May, 2013 in New York City.


    Jason Isbell (Southeastern Records)

    In the past month Jason Isbell has been the subject of an in-depth New York Times Magazine story, a Wall Street Journal profile, a National Public Radio spotlight, and numerous stories in the national press.

    All this for a musician who outside of Americana circles is relatively obscure. His resume is top-notch — he grew up in the Muscle Shoals area jamming with the iconic musicians from that artistically fertile region, was a key member of the Drive-By Truckers during their ascension, and has released five albums on his own or with his band the 400 Unit — but why all the fuss?

    Easy answer: "Southeastern."

    After 10 years or so of occasional brilliant songwriting — most notably "Outfit," "Alabama Pines," "Codeine," "Streetlights," "Dress Blues," and a few others — solid-but-not-great albums, and a protracted battle with the bottle, Isbell emerges on his fourth post-Truckers studio work with a bona fide great album.

    Dipping easily into various styles such as country, folk, Crazy Horse-style rock, pop, and singer/songwriter confessionals, Isbell writes with a level of detail and confidence that transforms his songs into vividly wrought short stories, replete with fully realized characters, an ideal amount of self-disclosure, and no false steps or lazy cliches.

    Just three examples:

    "Elephant" is a devastating tale of a couple dealing with cancer that serves as an unflinching, brave, and cinematic testament to friendship and love. Killer lyric: "Surrounded by her family, I could see she was dying alone."

    "Songs That She Sang in the Shower" is an old-school broken-hearted country anthem that builds to a power-chord driven soaring chorus and that manages to find a way to name drop a Willie Nelson song ("Yesterday's Wine") and a Pink Floyd tune ("Wish You Were Here") in the course of four minutes, which should give you a good feel for Isbell's musical palette. Killer lyric. "Experience robs me of hope that you'll ever return."

    "Cover Me Up," the album's opener is a romantic ballad that traverses a lot of ground — addiction, sobriety, passion, sensuality — and sets the tone for the entire disc. Killer lyric: "Girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain't leaving this room 'til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom."

    As a caveat, not all of "Southeastern" is somber. "Super 8" is a Stonesy rocker about rock and roll road high jinks, "Flying Over Water" is a blustery rocker, and "Different Days" gently takes stock of the changes a man makes for the better.

    Isbell's story of redemption, the love he shares with his new wife, fellow musician Amanda Shires, and his talent as a songwriter make all the hype for this album worthwhile. He is taking his music on the road and will be at The Ark in Ann Arbor on June 27. Look for an interview with him on the June 23 Blade Arts page.




    BLACK SABBATH (Vertigo/Universal)

    Hey, it’s not easy being Beelzebub’s sidekick. Just ask Ozzy Osbourne. Though he will always be best known for his work in Black Sabbath, he hasn’t recorded a new studio album with fellow founding members Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler since the ‘70s — until now. “13” is the first Sabbath album with Osbourne, Butler and Iommi in 35 years.

    Now back where he belongs, Ozzy is showing the effects of drug abuse, his once-cutting voice reduced in range and power. Iommi also has had his share of health problems, undergoing cancer treatment in recent years. More bad news: Sabbath drummer Bill Ward is sitting this one out due to a contractual dispute. His replacement, Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk, hits with appropriate authority, but lacks Ward’s swing.

    And yet, that dark backdrop may have contributed to this album’s brooding authority. The early Sabbath was steeped in blues and jazz, and with the encouragement of producer Rick Rubin, the quartet tries to reinvigorate that spirit on “13,” with five of the eight tracks stretching past seven minutes.

    Wilk does an adequate job on these extended tracks, but it’s the vitality of Iommi on guitar and Butler on bass that impresses. They evoke the band’s classic sound on “End of Beginning,” “Live Forever,” “Dear Father,” “God is Dead?” and the blues-saturated “Damaged Soul,” which could’ve been lifted from Sabbath’s sludge-metal tarpit, circa 1970-71. Iommi reconfigures his classic “N.I.B.” riff on “Loner,” stretches out with a menacing solo on “Age of Reason” and provides a jazzy, acoustic change-of-pace on “Zeitgeist.”

    As for Ozzy, he goes for numbed-out desolation rather than the mighty, double-tracked roar of old, singing like a Medieval hunchback locked in a dungeon. “When will this nightmare be over?,” he moans, perhaps flashing back to his reality-TV show. Butler’s lyrics find their perfect match in Osbourne. In these songs, the singer wrestles with demons — psychosis, self-abuse, existential dread — with which he’s had considerable personal experience. It makes “13” something a bit more credible than just a souvenir for a reunion tour.

    — GREG KOT, Chicago Tribune