If you are like me during this time of prolonged home confinement trying to avoid catching and spreading the COVID-19 virus, you have probably searched far and wide for entertainment to pass the time. Maybe you have binged all the shows, and watched more tick toks than you ever thought possible. Maybe you have tried and failed to make sourdough bread. Perhaps you have tried to concoct every conceivable bourbon cocktail in existence.
Well, it is time to add expanding your musical horizons to the list of things to do while on lock down. And there is no better place to start than with one of America’s best singer-songwriters out there making music today: Jason Isbell.
Isbell’s new album (“Reunions”), with his band The 400 Unit, is due for release on May 15, 2020. Before that day, you can dive deep into the oeuvre of the artist by starting with these essential 10 tracks. Enjoy.
In this author’s opinion, this is Jason Isbell’s finest song. An acoustic guitar and Isbell’s voice together confront imminent death as the elephant in the room. The song’s narrator, Andy, ushers the song’s unnamed female cancer victim toward her end, neither seemingly sure how one does that in the “right way.” Andy thus tries to just be there for and with her, getting drunk, singing her classic country songs, and sweeping her hair up off the floor. He laments her sharecropper eyes and weakened voice, gets high with her, and cries with her about what they used to be.
It is a devastating song about the helplessness, hopelessness, and futility of confronting death, and in the final days, somehow trying to ignore it altogether. It is Jason Isbell’s lyrical prowess displayed in its full power, and it is probably all the more powerful in today’s pandemic-addled world, where some are not getting to be there at all with their loved ones near death.
In every Jason Isbell song, certain lyrics stand out, grab your ear, and burrow into your brain. In “Elephant,” it is this one: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
“Cover Me Up” (Southeastern)
Despite the popularity and success of “If We Were Vampires” (see further down this list), “Cover Me Up” is Isbell’s most powerful love song. It is a broken man’s ode to his own wonderment at making it through “the days when we raged, [and] flew off the page” to find salvation in the arms of a woman, and one who would save him despite himself and his destructive lifestyle.
The redemptive and hopeful song is autobiographical, as Isbell hit rock bottom earlier in his career, getting himself booted from the Drive-By Truckers for his excessive drinking and drug use. Salvation came in the form of his relationship with singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, who would later become a member of The 400 Unit, as well as the Country-Americana supergroup The Highwomen, and who is a virtuoso songwriter in her own right. She also sings back-up with Isbell and plays the fiddle on “Cover Me Up.”
In the song, Isbell sings that he knows he put Shires’ faith to the test before he “swore off that stuff, forever this time.” Somebody knew he was meant for someone, Isbell sings, and together they would hole up in a metaphorical room, as she covered him and healed him. Nothing would draw them out until Isbell was clean, sober, and a man reborn.
The standout lyric here opens the song, as Isbell tells us just where he was before Shires arrived to save his grace: “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.”
“Cumberland Gap” (The Nashville Sound)
Despite the fact that lots of his songs are acoustic, mid-tempo numbers— and quite contemplative — Isbell calls himself and The 400 Unit “a rock n’ roll band,” and if you ever see them live, you will understand why. They do in-fact play loud and hard, with lots of slide guitar solos and thundering drum and bass lines. “Cumberland Gap” is that type of song. It paints a picture of a man who feels trapped in a dying mining town, surrounded by nothing but “churches, bars, and grocery stores.”
The narrator longs to leave that place, but the Cumberland Gap has swallowed him whole, and anyway, he is all that his mama has left, and he is with her every day. Instead, he cashes his checks, and finds his way to the Mustang Lounge each evening. It is a song about that feeling of drowning in your daily existence, with no conceivable means of escape. It might sound quotidian, but Isbell makes it profound, relating to all of us at some point in our lives. That is a large part of his musical and lyrical genius.
The standout lyric here: “As the sun goes down / I find my way to the Mustang Lounge / And if you don’t sit facing the window / You could be in any town.”
“Flagship” (Something More than Free)
Jason Isbell has a unique style when it comes to writing love songs, and “Flagship” is no exception. It is a soft, almost whispered plea to a lover that the two subjects of the song never let their love atrophy. The narrator seems to know that love affairs burn out, the flame dwindles to almost nothing, and a separation inevitably sets in. He besieges his partner to “never let us get that way,” telling her that he’ll “say whatever words he needs to say, [and] drive her to the ocean every day,” to keep the flame burning. It is a profession that one partner is willing to do whatever needs to be done to keep the love alive, and a plea to the other to make the same effort.
The description of an aging hotel in the song’s opening lines is a beautifully-crafted metaphor of a love slowly fading away, and provides the standout lyric: “There’s a few too many years on this hotel / She used to be a beauty you can tell / The lights down in the lobby they don’t shine / They just flicker while the elevator whines.”
“New South Whales” (Southeastern)
Musically, this song is a lovely little dance between acoustic guitar and bass, accompanied by oh-so-soft drumming and Amanda Shires’ twirling violin melody. Lyrically, it is one of Isbell’s most poetic songs, especially in the second verse. Here, the words are an instrument all their own, evoking emotion and imagery likely unique in the mind of each individual listener.
The whole song draws forth a sense of travel weariness, the exotica of a far away land, and a group of musicians “barely old enough to rust,” singing words nobody taught them, while “drinking fire” and “growing closer with each chorus.” It is also an admonition against the excesses of touring, as Isbell warns the listener off of expensive cocaine and piss-poor tequila not fit for even the likes of Waylon Jennings.
Like so many of Isbell’s songs, it is at once lovely and profound, and seemingly ageless. The standout lyric: “Morning’s rough / Don’t give a damn about the mission / Has no aesthetic or tradition / Only lessons never learned.”
“Chaos and Clothes” (The Nashville Sound)
While Isbell shines at penning a longing and beautiful love song, he also here crafts a narrative of the destruction left behind in the wake of a failed relationship. He sings about a man whose lover took his heart and “wrapped it around an oak tree like you did that ’67 GTO.” He describes the baggage (the “chaos and clothes” of the title) left behind by former lovers who walk away from us. We do our best to forget, in an emotional fight to the death, but keep being reminded of what we lost “in quiet corners where [we] rarely ever go.”
Isbell, as he so often does in his songs, takes what could be a trite exploration of a common musical trope — the break-up — and mines deeper and more emotionally resonant territory. It’s his gift, and he has not squandered it.
The standout lyric manages to illustrate both the spite the jilted lover feels toward his replacement, as well as the shallow nature of the failed relationship that led to his being replaced: “The man she chose / To take your place / Turns his collar up / To better frame his face / How you’d love to hate her / But you just can’t hate / Somebody you don’t know.”
“If We Were Vampires” (The Nashville Sound)
This gorgeous acoustic love song, a Grammy winner in 2018 for Best Americana Roots Song, is a standout on Isbell’s Grammy winning album The Nashville Sound (Best Americana Album). The song is a lament that the narrator does not have an eternal lifetime to spend with his lover, such that they know they may only get 40 years together, and one day one of them will be gone, leaving the other alone. It’s knowing that their love can’t go on forever that will make the man work hard to give her every second he can find.
Once again, Isbell is singing to the woman who “talked him off the roof,” who saved his fragile heart. She once again adds her beautiful voice to the song, in the chorus, creating a haunting and lovely aura around the words. It is truly a beautiful song, and deserving of the praise, awards, and recognition it brought to Isbell.
Standout lyric: “If we were vampires / And death was a joke / We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke / And laugh at all the lovers and their plans.”
“Different Days” (Southeastern)
Maybe this author’s personal favorite of all of Isbell’s songs — it is at least in the top 3 — “Different Days” lets us peer into the private thoughts of a man reminiscing about the ways he has changed, the mistakes he has made, and the regrets he has to face. It is vocally stark and unflinching, as the narrator comes to terms with what he has done and how he has lived and changed. The stories he keeps buried are his to live and die with, but the sentiment behind the introspection is there for all of us to experience and share, as we find our own answers.
The bass line is heavy and adds a somber tone, while the piano softly accompanies the acoustic guitar medley, which is simple and elegant. The song exemplifies what makes Isbell so great as a songwriter, as the listener injects his or her own memories, feelings, and sentiments into those put forward by the songwriter. It at once feels deeply personal for Isbell, and yet applicable and descriptive of any or all of us.
The standout lyric sheds just a little light on the depths of the narrator’s regret, and how he has changed and tried to find redemption: “Ten years ago I might / Have stuck around for another night / And used her in a thousand different ways / But those were different days.”
“Last of My Kind (Live)” (Live from the Ryman)
The only live cut on this list, “Last of My Kind” is Isbell lamenting the movement of time, and an urban world seemingly alien and hostile to a young rural man trying to make his way in the city. When he leaves what he knows for the wider world, time seems to cast away the familiar, and even wisdom passed from dad and mom fails to ease the road. Eventually, the family farm is paved over, and the city’s plentiful sins bring temptation and alienation.
What makes the live version stand out is the last three and a half minutes of alternating and sorrowful guitar and fiddle soloing that did not make the studio album. It is a melodic reminiscence that evokes a sense of regret, wonder, and the passage of time. The 400 Unit particularly shines in this extended coda.
Standout lyric: “Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear / Well that might be true in Arkansas / But I’m a long, long way from there.”
“Relatively Easy” (Southeastern)
Off of Southeastern, this sweeping acoustic guitar and piano-driven melody, that at first listen paints a somewhat bleak landscape, is in truth a song about redemption and perseverance in the face of personal struggle. Isbell provides us vignettes illustrating the hard times that we all experience, but at the bottom of that emotional trough, redemption and contentment can be found in something as simple as stopping in to buy a postcard for a girl. If that is not enough, Isbell sings, “Take a year and make a break; the answers could be relatively easy.” The point here is fighting your way back, and not giving up.
A pretty little electric guitar solo precedes the bridge, and the standout lyric: “Watch that lucky man / Walk to work again / He may not have a friend left in the world / See him walking home / Again to sleep alone / I step into a shop / To buy a postcard for a girl.”
That’s it. I hope the songs bring you as much joy as they do me.