A glance at the latest Rolling Stone confirms what I have known for some years. I am out of touch, musically. I can no longer keep up, or no longer choose to. The reality is somewhere in between. I purchased Daft Punk, sampled Paul McCartney, dismissed Arcade Fire after reading a dismissive review, own some old Vampire Weekend but haven’t heard the new CD. John Fogerty singing Wal-Mart duets of classic Creedence songs doesn’t have a chance. Sorry. And I won’t catch up on any rap or hip-hip until my children get home for Christmas and we start driving places. So, Kanye, hang on. I’m not disrespecting you. Still, I’ve had a “Best CD Of The Year” in mind for many months, and even though I expected it to be somewhere near the top of Rolling Stone’s top 50 CDs, it actually appeared nowhere on the list.
My choice (which will shock no reader of these pages, since I pre-emptively offered my “song of the year” here many months ago) is Jason Isbell’s Southeastern.
Since I’m so far out of the loop, I supposed I’d better offer my criteria for a Best Of The Year CD:
1. It should elevate the genre.
2. It should both please and surprise.
3. It should hold up.
Isbell’s Southeastern, seen as a chronicle of his battle with addicting demons, has all of these qualities. A work of harrowing beauty, Southeastern’s songs explore his topics with everything from unflinching honesty to self-deprecating humor. And even though the songs have no business appearing on country radio stations, this is clearly the Country CD of the Year, too. Isbell uses the same song structures, but takes the songs into dark places that illusory modern country doesn’t even know exist—in other words, real, not manufactured, life.
“Elephant” is a painful portrayal of a relationship in decline for many reasons, not the least of which is that the woman is dying of cancer, sick from chemo, but she and the narrator still “try to ignore [that] elephant somehow.” “If I fucked her before she got sick/ I’d never hear the end of it” gives us the graphic logistics of love in the time of cancer, though it’s hard to tell if the sickness is the result of cancer treatments or forget-everything drinking and smoking.
“Stockholm” is one of the prettiest, peppiest little love songs I’ve heard this year, slicked up with both a potent slide and sweet strings. With lines like “Once a wise man to the ways of the world/now I've traded those lessons for faith in a girl,” this song both reminds of the life that was and the chance at a redemption through love. Similarly, the small, light “Different Days,” with its acoustic, “Friend Of The Devil” chord progression feels like some of the weight of past addictions have lifted. Somewhat. One of its many insights (“Jesus loves a sinner/But the highway loves a sin”) surpasses an entire year of packaged country lyrics.
“Super 8” takes the partying lifestyle and turns it into a mock-serious country-rocker which both makes fun of the debauchery and hints at the toll it can take: “Don’t wanna die in Super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evenin’ didn’t go so well” is the couplet that reverberates in the listener’s head.
“Songs That She Sang in the Shower” addresses the loneliness of living with past failures and refuses to acknowledge any easy solutions: “And the church bells are ringing for those who are easy to please/And the frost on the ground probably envies the frost on the tree.”
On other days, other songs are favorites, especially slower, contemplative, what-the-heck-is-going-on-here numbers like “Yvette” or “Cover Me Up.” “Relatively Easy,” as I have argued before, is one of the great album closers. It lingers. It invites immediate relistening. Really, the whole CD does.Critics of Southeastern might claim that it is too slow, doesn’t rock often enough, doesn’t really have a circumstance when we might find ourselves playing it. I disagree. The songs have a lot to say, and the music in those songs gives plenty of space and time to the voice. I listen to this one at night, especially late at night, or in the car when I’m alone. Sometimes alone needs alone to go with it, and this CD is perfect for that situation, when loss and hope fight for one’s soul and neither one ever quite wins, though both land plenty of punches—on the listener.