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My Top Fifty Jason Isbell Songs
A Ranking Mostly For Me
It’s a cliché, but at some point in their lives, a lot of people turn their musical tastes into a personality. That’s not to say that it makes them interesting, necessarily, but it seems like a lot of folks get lost in the music they love and really find in it a way of expressing themselves and understanding the world. I have been through a few phases of that myself, from 90’s country to Seattle grunge to the Indigo Girls and Warren Haynes. But the last ten years of my life or so have been consumed by a steadily-growing affection for the music of Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit. He’s the perfect companion for my life in this stage—he’s from the South, he’s a straight white man who’s trying to be better than the stereotypes, and he leans hard on words to make sense of things. He can also play guitar with the best of them.
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I’m in deep enough now that I usually have two or three conversations going at a time about Jason Isbell, with friends around the country and sometimes even with strangers on the internet. I’ve seen him live more than I’ve seen anyone else (though the Indigo Girls give him a run for the money), and this year alone I am seeing him three or four times—not superfan levels by any means, but also not bad for someone with a couple of jobs, limited financial resources, and three kids.
After a couple of recent shows at Red Rocks and a few back-and-forths with friends about songs, I decided to compile a list of my top 50 Jason Isbell songs. Why? I am not sure. Will anyone care? Doubtful. If someone does happen to care, will they agree with me? Absolutely not. But it felt like a fun thing to do, kind of like organizing my CD collection would have felt 25 years ago, so I spent a Saturday doing it, and writing this 7000+ word review of them all.
A word about methodology. This is my list, specific to me alone, and it’s not based on anything even remotely approaching objectivity. Your favorite song might not be on here, or it might not be where you want it. My approach was to ask, at each moment, which song I would be more excited to hear come over my speakers, or to hear played at a concert. And I ranked them that way, from 50th most excited to most excited of all. I left some good ones off of this list; Something to Love, Codeine, Running with Our Eyes Closed, Tupelo, and To a Band that I Loved, for example, all failed to make the cut. And there’s a new album coming out in about a month that might shake things up a bit. (Three singles from that album are already out, and all three are on this list). But as of today, these are my top 50 Jason Isbell songs. If you don’t know his music, use this as a guide for getting into it—you won’t be disappointed. If you do know his music, let me know what you think!
50. We Ain’t Never Gonna Change
We Ain’t Never Gonna Change is a protest song about being on the underside of power and working your way through the world without much going for you. It’s defiant in a way that I have never been able to embrace, but there’s no denying that it’s a lot of fun to sing along with.
49. It Gets Easier
This is an objectively great song, and it probably deserves to be ranked higher than 49th. It’s an anthem and a promise; it is paradoxically, as Isbell sometimes jokes at shows, a rock and roll song about sobriety. Isbell famously got sober in 2012 after years of spiraling substance abuse—a story told in part in the very excellent recent HBO documentary titled Running With Our Eyes Closed (a title borrowed from a song that did not make my top 50). Even though it’s ranked near the bottom of my personal top 50, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this song, and many of its vignettes are very moving and very familiar to anyone who has struggled with substance abuse or has been affected by it.
48. Songs that She Sang in the Shower
“I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them.” This song from the epochal 2013 album Southeastern speaks into one of the persistent themes of Isbell’s music: the definitions, challenges, and negotiations of masculinity. As he says in one of his more recent songs (and the next song on this list), Isbell “was raised to be a strong and silent Southern man,” and to me, his wrestling with that way he was shaped and formed is one of the most interesting things about his music. As someone raised in similar circumstances, culture, and place as Isbell, his reflections on what it means (and doesn’t mean) to be a man are some of the most compelling parts of his catalog.
47. Middle of the Morning
This is the second single off the forthcoming album Weathervanes, and it’s a cry out of the depths of the pandemic. That might be part of the reason I have it ranked so low; I haven’t had a lot of time to get acquainted with this song yet, and I’m not necessarily ready to dwell on the “thousand days alone, in my bed or in my head or in my phone” that the song chronicles. But the melody is gorgeous, and its attention to the strange dynamics of the pandemic, where so many of us were constantly in the presence of just a few people and so utterly cut off from everyone else, is probably something a lot of folks can relate to.
46. New South Wales
Another cut from Southeastern, I feel like this song gets overlooked. I hear it as an introspective tune about the experiences of striking out young, moving into unknown territory, contending with the things we bring upon our selves and the world throws at us, and finding our way home again. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Isbell’s distinctive style on acoustic guitar. I’m not sold on part of the refrain—“God bless the busted boat the brings us back.” It’s not a bad line by any means, but it feels like it comes from a different place than the rest of the lyrics.
45. What’ve I Done to Help
A rollicking song and a long hard look in the mirror, this Trump-era song is one many in which Isbell reflects on his place in a world that seems to be going sideways. I read somewhere that his wife, singer-songwriter and fiddle player Amanda Shires, thought that the song was unfair to the two of them, not giving them enough credit for their activism. I think that’s right (it’s hard to think of any two artists who are more engaged), but the song is also a reflection of the feeling of helplessness about the state of the world that many people felt (and still feel) in that era. It’s a meditation on the limits of being an ally and the horizons of personal responsibility. It’s also a fantastic song to hear live.
44. Flying Over Water
Isbell really seems to like this song; he plays it a lot live, and sometimes opens or closes shows with it. I don’t know what accounts for the difference, but I don’t like it as much. I do, however, love one line: “from the sky the highway’s straight as it could be, a string pulled tight from home to Tennessee.” Something about that line just feels exactly right.
43. Hope the High Road
Another of the Trump-era songs, I always understand this song as a riff on Michelle Obama’s suggestion that “when they go low, we go high.” It’s full of lines about the trauma of that time—“I heard enough of the white man’s blues,” and “last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know.” The refrain, “I hope the high road leads you home again, to a world you wanna live in,” is as relevant today as it was when the album was released in 2017.
Jason Isbell writes a lot of songs about subjects that aren’t very often the subjects of songs. Anxiety is a rock and roll song about just that—the experience of anxiety—and the challenges of navigating the world with it following you around. I have less anxiety than many people do, but I often find myself thinking about the perspective of this song as it relates to other parts of my life—recognizing that so many things have gone right for me (“I’m out here living in a fantasy”), and not letting the things that have gone wrong have the last word.
41. Be Afraid
Thematically, Be Afraid has a lot in common with the previous song, Anxiety. This one is about fearlessness and daring, not out of any authentic experience of lacking fear, but out of spite. It’s a song about doing the right thing simply as a way of denying satisfaction to the wrong thing.
Again, a rock song about a decidedly not rock-and-roll notion: settling down and making a life. And how many songwriters out there can successfully rhyme the word “facetious” and make it sound completely natural?
39. Chaos and Clothes
I feel like this song has been somewhat abandoned by Isbell, which is both understandable and a pity. He wrote this one about the relationship between the famous singer-songwriter Ryan Adams and the global pop star Mandy Moore (Ed.: thanks Andy for the correction!). It’s a really sweet account of a relationship beginning and ending, with some really good introspective parts to boot. But when the news broke that Adams had been accused of being abusive to several women, including Moore, the song took on a different tenor. It has been put on the shelf, rightly, but I do still enjoy it for some of its lines, especially for its reflections on how the inner life does not always translate to the ways other people perceive you.
38. Daisy Mae
This is an old song, from the 2011 album Here We Rest, that’s probably not at the top of many people’s list of Isbell songs. But I love it because it represents a kind of evolutionary moment in his songwriting. The chorus, in my opinion, is very conventional and not especially artful. But the verses show the potential of Isbell’s craft shining through. The juxtaposition of those two things always catches me short, like we’re watching footage of the moment the first humans learned to walk on two legs.
37. If It Takes a Lifetime
Sometimes Jason Isbell’s songs feel so autobiographical that you’re sure they must represent his own experiences, but I think as often as not he’s writing in someone else’s voice. This one is like that; it’s narrated by a man who’s starting over, beginning from not very much, and hoping for something better in the future. That set of experiences might be familiar to the songwriter of course, and it might be familiar to a lot of us, but the details of this song’s narrator’s life are different from Isbell’s. That’s the mark of a good song, I think—the experiences feel familiar, even if they aren’t yours.
36. Something More Than Free
It’s fortuitous that this song and If It Takes A Lifetime ended up next to each other, because they share the themes of struggle and labor and making a life. Something More Than Free is hopeful in a different register; it’s more desperate and exhausted and cast in a more plaintive sound. This song could very well be from the same narrator from the last one, but five or ten years on—his dreams of improvement being smothered by long days of working for someone else.
35. Last of My Kind
So many Isbell songs are about the estrangement of being separated from the people, land, and cultures that you have known, and trying to navigate life unmoored from your systems of support. That makes sense, given his biography, and it makes sense of why the people who like Isbell like him. Often, his fans are folks who have been separated by geography, time, or circumstances from their roots, and who are trying to make sense of who they are and where they belong. That’s certainly true of me, and it’s a lot of the reason I resonate with his music. This song chronicles the out-of-placeness that can follow you around, and the sense of being uprooted. “They laughed when they gave me amphetamines” is a haunting line that captures a whole universe of relationships in a single image.
34. Maybe It’s Time
Jason Isbell wrote this song for a movie—for the 2018 film A Star Is Born. In one of his concert recordings, before he sings this song Isbell gently makes fun of it, saying that the film must have been science fiction, because in it, this song was a hit. Certainly Bradley Cooper does a good job of selling it as a smash single. But I like it for a different reason. Not very many of Isbell’s songs have overtly religious themes (though we will encounter another in a moment), but this one notices that “nobody knows what waits for the dead,” and “nobody speaks to God these days.” Those sentiments lend weight to the song’s general sense of decline and loss.
33. White Man’s World
This might be one of Isbell’s most overtly political songs, which is saying something. Born out of the Trump era and a spate of killings of Black people, this song shares a view of the world from the perspective of a white man who understands that it is, as the song goes, a white man’s world. It interrogates the complicity and complacency that come with unsolicited power, and it ends by asking what reason there might be for hope.
32. 24 Frames
This song is another rare instance where something approaching theology bubbles to the surface: “You thought God was an architect. Now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” I know some religion scholars who really love this song for that reason. I like it fine, but I’m not as high on it as some others.
31. Super 8
I wasn’t high on this song the first hundred times I heard it, but it has grown on me. It’s a rowdy tale of a debaucherous night in one of the eponymous hotel chain’s locations. It’s a little unhinged, which I think is the point, and full of clever details (pedialyte, a couple drinks and dinner, fungo bat). My favorite thing about this song is that often when they perform it the band’s bass player, Isbell’s childhood friend Jimbo Hart, will move from backstage to the front of the stage when Isbell sings the line “bass player stepping up, brandishing a coffee cup, took it in the baby fat,” literally stepping up on stage in sync with the song.
30. Cumberland Gap
There’s something so bleak about the idea of going to a bar and sitting facing away from the window so that you can forget what town you’re still in. This whole song is bleak, like the lives it describes; it captures the desperation of living in a place with no prospects and only a crumbling past to hang on to. I think it belongs with some of the great recent coal-mining songs like Steve Earle’s Devil Put the Coal in the Ground and You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive by Darrell Scott.
29. Death Wish
This is the first single off the newest album, Weathervanes, and it’s another character study by the artist who has mastered them. The woman who’s in view throughout the song has the titular death wish; she’s unhinged and untethered in a way that makes me feel like she’s not crazy, she just understands more than the rest of us. My theory is that the song is actually gender-flipped, and that it’s a way of Isbell talking about himself, his self-destructive past, and his feeling that decorum is a veneer that hides the truth from ourselves. I hear it as a song about a man with a death wish, not a woman with a death wish, and about what it’s like to love such a person.
28. Decoration Day
This really ought to be higher on the list, and if I had written this post on a different day it might have been. By the measure of precocity alone, it’s an astounding song; Isbell wrote this a very short time into his first professional gig, touring with the Drive-By Truckers, in his very early 20s. It’s a thinly fictionalized account of a family feud between the Lawsons and the Hills, and the cycles of violent recriminations that seize both sides until there’s almost nobody left. Decoration Day is a staple of the live shows, where it’s always a loud and raucous song.
27. Hudson Commodore
It’s hard for me to hear this song without thinking of my grandmothers, who were both badasses cloaked in mid-century domesticity. It chronicles what we might call feminism before the time that such a thing had entered the mainstream, following a woman as she makes her way in a world that isn’t prepared to make space for her. Cars show up in a few Isbell songs as symbols of desire and freedom, and here the Hudson Commodore is a vision of what the woman wants for herself, held up against what everyone else seems to want for her.
26. How To Forget
At a recent concert Jason Isbell described himself as writing songs where he tries to make all the words equally important, and this song feels that way to me. Most of my favorites of his songs do that—they pile up the words, rarely repeating things, moving through the interlocking pieces of language to tell stories and heap up images. How To Forget is verse-heavy, catchy, and focused on what needs erasing from the past to let the future unfurl.
25. The Life You Chose
If the last song was about erasing the past, this one is about reaching back in time to drag it into the present. It tells about two people—I imagine them as middle-aged—reconnecting years after their relationship to compare notes and entertain the question of whether to “throw your life away, victim of nostalgia, maybe Tanqueray.” The song ends up in a place of realizing, as these things so often go, that the romance of the past is more imagined than real.
24. St. Peter’s Autograph
Isbell’s album Reunions had the terrible misfortune of being released only a couple of months into the pandemic, and getting almost no touring support. So many of the songs from it are not as well known as they should be, and this is but one example. It’s something like a flipped image of the last song, The Life You Chose, in that it asks about how to be in relationship with someone who is grieving someone from their own past. There are some absolutely haunting lines in this song, and it feels hopeful by the end, which is no small thing for a song about the effects of suicide.
23. Different Days
I heard an interview with Isbell where he talked about the inspiration for this song. He was, literally, at a store or a post office where they post photos of missing people, “staring at the pictures of the runaways on the wall.” The song unfolded from there, as he wondered about the lives of the people in the pictures. It’s a heartbreaking set of words, unrelenting in its descriptions of brokenness, refusing to offer up any facile hope. With this song, we are entering into what I consider to be the upper echelons of Isbell songs, each of them perfect (or nearly so) in their own ways, and capable of being put in almost any order without much argument from me.
I first heard this song in early July 2007, in a moving truck, somewhere in Missouri or Kansas, driving our possessions from North Carolina to Colorado. Jessa was 6 or 7 months pregnant with our first child, and this song about fatherhood and advice came on the radio and caught me short. I think I heard the version recorded by the Drive-By Truckers, the band Isbell had been in and wrote the song for, but it definitely stuck with me. It’s a staple of Isbell’s concerts even now, especially when his father is in the audience, as it’s a compilations of aphorisms he had said to Jason as a kid. (There’s another car in this song that represents desire and freedom; the father had a green Ford Mustang where the kid was conceived in the back seat, that got sold to pay for a wedding ring when the mother got pregnant). There’s a lot in there about masculinity and the impossible guardrails that it throws up at you; it feels like a spiritual predecessor to another much more recent song that will appear at #4 on this list.
I can imagine a number of different interpretations of this song, but they all revolve around the experience of falling in love and feeling simultaneously trapped by it and set free by it. The line “locked me up tight in these shackles I wear, tied up the keys in the folds of your hair” is so strangely specific and precisely true that it’s hard to believe someone actually wrote it.
20. Palmetto Rose
This song is a homage to Charleston SC and its surrounding area, and the people and cultures that flourish there. Some of my favorite Isbell songs are huge epic stories that are seen through the aperture of a moment or a place, and this song—with its flowers, its taxi cab, and its beaches, somehow manages to speak into a whole legacy of slavery and all of its horrors.
19. Tour of Duty
In concert Isbell sometimes pairs this song with Dress Blues, below, to portray two sides of military service and its follow-on effects. In that binary, this song is showing something of the upside—the happy reunion, the satisfied life, and the simple pleasures of civilian life. I like some of the turns of phrase found in this song, that capture the joy and under-the-surface struggle of everyday life.
18. Go It Alone
I am not sure that I have a complete theory of what this song is about, but it seems to orbit around the feeling of having escaped a catastrophe of your own making. The narrator (like Isbell) seems to have narrowly escaped self-destruction through substance abuse, and he knows that “in real life these things don’t happen much at all,” and he’s “realizing just how far I had to fall.”
17. Alabama Pines
This is one of the earliest of Isbell’s hits, and still one of his best known. I remember it catching my attention on satellite radio for its line “no one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about, the liberties we can’t do without, seem to disappear like ghosts in the air, and we don’t even care,” which I took as an indictment of the Patriot Act era America out of which the song came. But I’ve come to appreciate it for its sense of place, as it traces a kind of sacred geography through the state of Alabama, and for its sense desperate longing, as it describes someone living in a hotel first for a week or two, and then for a year or two, with no pathway to escape. “I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline.” What does that mean? I’m not sure, but I think I understand. And this is one of a few songs in which Isbell plays with namelessness and the effacement of one’s own identity; here, “I don’t even need a name anymore; no one calls it out, it kind of vanishes away.”
16. Traveling Alone
I resonate deeply with the narrator of this song; I have never been the long-haul trucker that (I think) he is, but at its core this is a story about loneliness and companionship and the matter-of-fact manner of someone whose work has become rote. The trucker has mastered both his tools and his landscape, but he is finding that it all comes up empty when there is no one to share it with. There’s a line in here about being “damn near strangled by my appetite” for alcohol, which might be autobiographical for Isbell but feels absolutely in character for the man telling the story in this song.
This one is…atmospheric. There’s an echo to the guitars and a hauntedness to the lyrics that give the song an apocalyptic feel. Part of that is about America, I think—“doesn’t seem so long ago that we thought that we could change their minds, stay here and fight it out, with a love that we could weaponize, but I saw you losing faith and I was watching as the light went out; you know what revolution means, you know it’s not an option now.” There’s a despair about the status quo in American culture and politics. But there’s also a despair at being separated from the one person who gets it. The refrain, first “my love won’t change a thing” and then “our love won’t change a thing,” belies a resignation and an acceptance of a kind of fallen world.
Another song from the Reunions album, this song hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. I read an interview with Isbell in 2020 in which he talks about these lyrics coming from an amalgamation of his and his wife Amanda Shires’ experiences as children, and it’s full of observations and details about the world of a child that ring true. The ways parents disappoint us, the ways friends come and go, the ways you can feel transient in your own life—it’s all in here. I read a mean tweet (is there any other kind?) once that said that Isbell just has an Oedipus complex. Certainly his mother appears in his songs as a kind of polar star, and as a sympathetic figure. Here, she’s the presence he can return to in the midst of turmoil and upheaval. The sensory truth of the chorus, “dreamsicle on a summer night in a folding lawn chair,” is as close to a time machine to the South in 1985 as I have found.
13. Live Oak
It is a testament to superb songwriting when a song about murder and betrayal is beautiful and moving. Live Oak is a character study, following a man who is followed by the man “who did the things I’m living down,” until that older self catches up to him. There is a strong sense of place here. (Someone on the internet made a map recently of all the places mentioned in Jason Isbell songs, so pronounced is his sense of geography and place). The song is set in the north, on a frontier, where a criminal on the run might be able to make a new start. The narrator, though, isn’t able to outrun his past, and the live oak from the title turns out to stand for something terrible and unthinkable.
12. If We Were Vampires
There is no love without the potential for loss. Nothing and nobody lasts forever, and this capitulation to mortality is the backdrop for this gorgeous love song. The lyrics begin with beautiful evocations of longing and desire and even lust, but they quickly move into an appreciation of someone that can only come with great love, and then into a meditation on life and death themselves. “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever. Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone. Maybe we’ll get forty years together, but one day I’ll be gone, and one day you’ll be gone.” Never in a million years did I think a song with the word “vampires” in it would make me teary, but here we are.
11. Cover Me Up
I think Jason Isbell has three great love songs. If We Were Vampires, the previous song, was one of them. One of them is still coming up as the number one song on my list. But Cover Me Up is the third one. It’s his most famous song, having been covered by a big-shot country music star. But Cover Me Up is so intensely personal to Isbell and Shires that it almost feels like a violation for anyone else to sing it. It’s so personal that I often feel sorry that Shires has to hear it again and again, because I know it has to be painful for her (and I’ve heard her say so in interviews). This is a song about sin and redemption, yes, and about desire and love, but it’s also a song about how we hurt the ones we love and fail them in profound ways. In the most recent two concerts I have seen, they’ve been doing something different, turning up Shires’ vocals so that the song is almost a duet. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but I hope it is, and I hope that she is able to claim it in some way as her own. Here again place and space carry a lot of weight: the room, the bed, the house, the Percy Priest dam and the Stones River (if you ever lived in Nashville, you can see it in your mind’s eye). The song gets big cheers at shows, for its line about getting sober, but the heroism in the song is less about that, and more about the ways people who love each other accommodate each other’s weaknesses and mistakes, even when it hurts them immensely.
10. Dress Blues
Isbell wrote this song for a man who died in the Iraq War, and it’s evocative of the life of that man and of the enterprise of war generally. It’s neither a pro-war song nor an anti-war song, and it’s not even a song about sacrifice. It’s a song about the tragedy of violence and loss. It’s a song about a “Hollywood war” that was nevertheless real-life and devastating to the people who fought it and the people they left behind. As part of a pair with Tour of Duty (#19 above), it’s a way of asking questions about service and what we demand from the ones who choose to serve.
This might be a controversial choice to put so high on the list, since it’s not one of Isbell’s most lyrically daring songs, and it’s quite old. But Danko/Manuel is an absolute monster in a live performance, and it’s one of the times the band comes closest to a jam-band aesthetic. The song is about a couple of musicians from The Band, and more generally it’s a reflection on life as a musician and as a human being.
8. Speed Trap Town
I can absolutely see the checkout aisle where this song begins. For me, it’s at the Food Lion grocery store in the town where I grew up, the one all the way to the right, where the cheap roses could be found alongside tabloids and single candy bars. The whole song is full of images of small-town life so specific that they could be anywhere: the high school football game where dreams were lost and forgotten, the hospital room where reckonings never quite happened, the highways where you can escape if you can work up the nerve. In one concert recording, Isbell cheekily calls this “a country song about a truck.” The pickup truck does get mentioned twice, but his comment is a way of pointing to the specific openings through which landscapes take shape. It’s a crushing song about loss and what we have to decide to give up on.
7. Only Children
Only Children is the kind of song that becomes more relevant the older you get—or at least, that’s what has happened to me. Nearly thirty years after I graduated from high school (!!!), news comes a few times a year now of someone who I knew as a kid who has died. Most recently it was a guy I was friends with from elementary school through college, when I randomly swung by his dorm room on a short road trip with friends to say hello. We entered the seventh grade science fair together and won a ribbon. I don’t know much about his life after we lost touch, but from what I gather it was neither easy nor especially happy. Only Children tells a story like that one, of people who were friends when they were younger, only now one of the friends is mourning the other one. This song and the next three are all devastating songs about death, and they all contain lines that fall like a hammer blow. In Only Children, it’s a line from a scene at the funeral, in a conversation with the dead man’s mother, and a question at the end about whether the dead believe in ghosts. The song is a sonic eulogy that barely covers over the grief of a life cut short and unfulfilled. The older I get, the more I know about that, and the more this song cuts to the bone.
Another song about death, Elephant is the story of a friendship between the narrator and a woman who is dying of cancer. They know each other from a bar, and the story revolves around the everyday self-medication that makes both living and dying easier, and the kind of bond that emerges from the shared experiences of loneliness and suffering. It’s a story about caring for each other and choosing family. Ultimately it’s a story about loss, and how you can’t bargain your way out of it. “No one dies with dignity,” Isbell sings, and it’s true, even at the same time that the song dignifies the life and death and grief that the woman passes through.
5. Relatively Easy
This is an idiosyncratic list, specific to me, and maybe not too many others would have this song so high on the list. But in this foursome of songs about death, this one sounds most familiar. “I lost a good friend,” the narrator says, “at Christmastime when folks go off the deep end. His woman took the kids and he took klonopin, enough to kill a man of twice his size.” Here is a life frozen and then lost in the middle, broken at the point of greatest bending. “Not for me to understand,” he continues, “I remember him when he was still a proud man, a vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand, nothing but the blue sky in his eyes.” There’s a way of talking about memory here (and in the next song), that draws a thread from the open blue skies of childhood to the deep ends of adulthood, and moves the listener back and forth with ease. For every one of the friends I have lost, I have a snapshot like this in my mind—the girl in chemistry class smiling, the guys in the hotel room on the concert band trip, the shifty eyes of the kid trying to figure out how to walk around holding hands with his high school girlfriend without getting made fun of. They’re all gone now, and those flashes of memory are hard to reconcile with where their stories ended.
4. Cast Iron Skillet
This is Isbell’s latest single, the third one from his forthcoming album, and it has grabbed me like nothing before. I listened to it 70 or 75 times in the first 48 hours it was out, on repeat in the car, at work, and in bed before falling asleep. It’s absolutely haunting and beautiful and enigmatic. There are two stories in it, as far as I can tell. The first is another tale of loss, a boy “sweet and soft” who “shied away from the inside fastballs and died doing life without parole.” This part of the song seems to be based on a true story of a man who committed murder and then died in prison, and the song is asking, plaintively, “how’d he get so low?” The second story is about a girl who “found a boyfriend, with smiling eyes and dark skin, and her daddy never spoke another word to her again.” It’s probably recognizable to anyone who has grown up in America, and especially the South, and again the refrain “how’d he get so low” asks how a father could love a stupid prejudice more than his daughter. It’s a rhetorical question, but one that we already know the answer to.
3. Goddamn Lonely Love
If I had to place a bet, I would wager that this is Isbell’s favorite expletive. If that’s true, then we have that in common. Spare me the pearl-clutching; although many people think that this is the worst of all profanities, because of a bad reading of the second of the Ten Commandments, I find it to be the most theologically rich and linguistically potent of obscenities. Isbell uses it several times in different songs—swapping “goddamn knee” out for “bad left knee” in Never Gonna Change in live shows, and singing “baby I love you, get off my goddamn back” in Different Days. In this song, it’s hard to imagine any words better suited to modify “love” than “goddamn lonely,” because it’s a song about the wrenching struggle of making it through days and trying to find one’s self. Amanda Shires talks about hearing this song before they were dating and realizing how talented a songwriter Isbell is, and although it’s a relatively old song, it’s an absolute masterclass of how to put words together to communicate something.
2. Children of Children
The experience of growing up poor in a broken home in Alabama is always near the center of all of Jason Isbell’s songs. It’s the backdrop against which many of his words play out, and it’s the well from which he draws so many of his images and characters. In Children of Children, this setting is at its most explicit and obvious. It’s a song about being part of a family and all of its cycles, in which people have children young enough that there are “five full generations living,” and in which the main character is the narrator’s mother, “seventeen again,” “shorter than the corn,” with a baby on her hip. It’s no wonder that marriages can’t last through that, the song argues, when the people in them are too young to know the “difference between sacred and profane.” Children of Children tells a story that will be familiar to many people who come from places where hope is always invested in a generation or two down the line, always deferred to the future, and never even remotely available in the present. It’s a hopeless song, but it’s hopeless in such a dignified way that I always want to follow it where it goes. What do we take from the past and owe to the future? The narrator doesn’t even get called by his own name (in a parallel to the namelessness in Alabama Pines), and it’s hard to figure out how you matter beyond your capacity to produce a new generation to pass some distant hope along to. This song is elegiac, mournful, soaring, and bruised, and I love it.
I wrote above that Jason Isbell has three great love songs, and I think that this is the best of them all. I think it’s also his most finely crafted song, lyrically and musically. I have spoken a few times about Isbell’s ability to tell a story through the aperture of a place or a space or a character, and this song has them all. It opens in a hotel, run-down and past its best days, and a couple having drinks there together, but not really in the same space. The rest of the song unfolds as a reflection on long-term relationships and as an insistence that we “not ever get that way,” that we “not live to see it fade,” that the narrator and his partner be the ones to make it—that they be the “flagship of the fleet.” It reminds me of an Indigo Girls song, Love’s Recovery, and its line about “our friends we thought were so together, they’ve all gone and left each other, in search of fairer weather, and we sit here in our storm and drink a toast to the slim chance of love’s recovery.” That sentiment, found in Flagship too, makes more sense the older I get and the more I see the relationships of friends falter and end. There’s a mournfulness to both songs that doesn’t blame anyone for the way their life unfolds, but that does its best to be the exception to the rule. After 23 years of marriage, that makes sense to me. Jason Isbell only ever performs this song live if his wife Amanda Shires is with the band, and to me it seems like the moment when his music is closest to the surface about how he feels in real life about their relationship. On top of that, it’s just a beautiful song, constructed as a metaphor that keeps building upon itself, yearning to be the ones that make it, who don’t find themselves “a thousand miles apart” even while sitting in the same room. I can listen to this song on a loop and never get tired of it, and having written this paragraph, I think that’s what I will go and do.
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