Jason Isbell--"Relatively Easy" (mp3)
Because if you are reading this right now, you are of a certain type, a certain standard of living, a certain comfort level. Unless, of course, you're here on some kind of existential quest for free music. And maybe, even then, this is your song of the year.
Because Jason Isbell has written a song for you, for all of us. It's a neat trick, that last song on his new CD, Southeastern, coming as it does at the end of a string of songs which, whatever else they accomplish, show us Isbell or his personna coming to terms with streak of substances abuse that he seems to have tentatively under control. And, because we have seen so many depictions of that lifestyle in song, book, film, and perhaps our own lives or the lives of those we know, we tend to have a pretty good understanding of what a hellish ride that is. And Isbell goes and undercuts the whole damn thing.
Because "Relatively Easy"--at various turns tender, sympathetic, gently mocking, self-effacing, embracing, distancing, brutally honest, coyly ambiguous--takes the trials and tribulations of our lives and puts them into contexts that show them to be both devastating and, as the title suggests, "relatively easy" to deal with.
The song opens with a friendly acoustic strumming pattern (including a minor chord nod to the chord the Goo Goo Dolls built their entire canon upon) and Isbell's most welcoming voice:
Are you having a long day?
Everyone you meet rubs you the wrong way,
Dirty city streets smell like an ashtray,
Morning bells are ringing in your ear.
Isbell's use of the 2nd person makes it seem, at least at first, that he's speaking to all of us (more on my increasing love for the 2nd person in an upcoming post). There's a kind of "we've all been there" feel to the scene, a day that went south for any number of small, even petty reasons, so that everything around us adds to the irritation.
But he takes a quick turn toward something more bothersome:
Is your brother on a church kick?
Seems like just a different kind of dope sick.
Quickly, we know that Isbell has moved from a general "you" to someone he knows, someone with a sibling who's gone off the deep end on Christianity, a circumstance Isbell equates with someone needing a fix. These sharp, bitter lines, which continue in the next couplet of sarcastic religious commentary, bring home the song's opening notion that sometimes people are hard to be around in some core ways.
But immediately Isbell, shifting to the chorus, yanks the rug:
You should know compared
To people on a global scale
Our kind has had it relatively easy,
And here with you there's always
Something to look forward to,My angry heart beats relatively easy.
I love, in particular, the word choice of "our kind." That's us, boys and girls. And it plays off the phrase "your kind," which has always had that grouped, dismissive, insulting tone to it. Here, Isbell seems to say, 'Yeah, things can suck for you, but take a look around.' And juxtaposed with his little note of love that finishes the chorus with the vague, generalized platitude of "there's always something to look forward to," he seems to relish his relationship and to not make too much of it at the same time. It helps him, but it doesn't, it can't, cure him.
I won't break down the rest of the song, for it has additional lyrical gems and surprises along the way if you've not yet heard it. It also maintains a consistent ambivalence throughout, as he explores the plights of a friend, himself, a guy he doesn't know walking along the street whose situation he imagines, all of them trying to come to terms with new circumstances and all dealing with those in different ways.
But I would clue you in to a couple of key lines. I like the ways he pokes fun at the notion of our desire to get away from it all so we can figure things out:
Take a year and make a break,
There aint that much at stake,
The answers could be relatively easy.
And I always appreciate a chronicler who is willing to indict himself, as Isbell does here, when after describing his run-in with the law, he says, "Everything to blame except my mind."
"Relatively Easy" is the best kind of song a singer-songwriter can put in front of us. It's gentle, alluring, and rewarding to sing along with, and while not didactic or dogmatic or political, as the words come out of our own mouths, they still create a kind of unease, they still force us to take stock and may compel us to say, "Oh, yeah, I hadn't quite thought of it that way."
I'm not claiming this will be your favorite song of the year; I have no control over that. But I do contend that this is your song and mine, whether we will admit that or not. And, by the way, the entire Southeastern CD is more than worth your time.