Honest, heart-wrenching, desolate, beautiful, bleak. Hopeful. One of the most astonishing records you’ll ever hear. Southeastern is the living document of a man coming face to face with his demons and triumphing. But that triumph is only found at the very edges. It’s hard-won, and even harder to sustain.
“In a room / by myself
Looks like I’m here with a guy that I judged worse than anyone else
So I pace / and I pray
And I repeat the mantra’s that might keep me clean for the day”
– Songs That She Sang in the Shower
The context is Isbell’s struggle to get sober. But more broadly, it’s about the choice to become better in all sorts of ways. Which really means it’s about two different people wrapped up into one: the man that you’ve been and the man that you want to be. And you can’t help but wonder which one of them is the real you. Am I nothing but the experiences of my past self aggregated together? Do I own those memories or have they merely been lent to me by some more fundamental version of myself?
“There’s a man who walks beside me
He is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”
– Live Oak
And that’s the basic question of the record: is there anything left in this single moment? Is there any way to wrench my life away from the person who has brought me here? And if so, is it the real me who takes that act? Am I the one who wants to change, or the one who can’t manage to actually do it? When I am sober, am I simply acting out a role – and my true self only emerges through the vehicle of substances that erode my inhibitions? Or am I only really me when I’m free from those influences? If I do change things, will I like the person that I am going to become?
“She said Andy you crack me up
Seagrams in a coffee cup
Sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone
She was drunk, she made cancer jokes
Made up her own doctor’s notes
Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone”
Precisely because these questions are so inexorably personal and specific, Isbell mostly avoids trying to articulate them directly. He seems to realize that the only way to tell a true story about these questions is to do so obliquely. So we get characters, which serve important allegorical functions, but the connections are never overstressed. These songs aren’t supposed to represent particular emotions, or particular struggles. Instead, they reflect attitudes, values, fears. They’re perspectives, which illuminate faces of a life that can never be grasped in its totality.
“Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin”
– Different Days
One relative constant is that all of these people are constantly on the move, on frontiers, at the margins of society. While in some cases the reason for this movement is made clear (the singer of “Live Oak” is quite literally running from his own past), in many cases the plot details are left completely unfilled. All we know is that standing still somehow means giving up. Rather than filling in the plot details or etching a backstory, we zoom in close on specific details. Some of the albums most powerful moments come from little fragments of conversations, the sorts of things that haunt your memory long after the details are lost. The songs that she sang in the shower, a drink in a coffee cup, a view from an airplane window, the moment when a ‘goodbye’ long suppressed is finally said out loud.
“Once a wise man to the ways of the world
Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl”
And finally, it all comes back to this: Southeastern is more than anything else an album about love. It’s about the person who finally pushed him into action, the person who was finally worth doing it for. The hardest part of getting help can often be accepting that you are not in control – that as much as your actions seem to be intentional and directed, somehow you’ve lost sight of your true self. This is a terrifying proposition. And it puts all of these songs about movement in a new light. What they reveal is a man running from himself. Which makes it particularly powerful to realize that the most hopeful song on the record is built around the line:
“So girl leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room
Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.”
- Cover Me Up
Maybe, just maybe, getting better doesn’t have to mean running from who you once were. Maybe it just means finding a way to stop running, at least for a little while. If we’re lucky, we still can find ourselves – and share that self with someone who loves us. And tomorrow, we have to try again. And the next day. And the next.
And here’s the terrible thing: we may not make it. After all, the girl in “Elephant” is going to die. And even more, as much as he wants to help, all of his kindness can’t give her death any more dignity. It’s simply an impenetrable wall. But the impossible weight of that fact doesn’t make it any less important to be there. It’s not just a question of love; after all, her family loves her, but she is still dying alone. What he can offer, maybe, is the kind of solace in the temporary loss of memory. He gives her the chance to forget what she is now and remember who she really is. Is that enough? We may never know. But we have to try anyways.