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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Southeastern – 2013 (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers)

Reviewed by Lee Zimmerman

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CDs by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Given the fact that Jason Isbell opts for solo billing this time around, it might be assumed that last year's "Live From Alabama," recorded with the 400 Unit, was the band's swan song of sorts. That is, unless one considers the fact that drummer Chad Gamble and keyboardist Derry deBorja are still along for the ride, albeit sans the band billing. Likewise, the cast and crew also includes some notable names in the credits, including fiddle player/vocalist Amanda Shires (who is also now Isbell's wife), singer Kim Richey, fellow auteur Will Johnson and drummer Paul Griffith, all of whom make choice cameos throughout.

Consequently, the most significant change going forward is not the personnel, but rather the fact that it's so personal. The sparse settings and solitary sound offer the impression this is very much a solo album in the truest sense of the term. It's also Isbell's finest effort to date, however bold that evaluation may seem. Indeed, these are among the most intimate and personal songs Isbell's ever offered, and the dazzling beauty and heartfelt emotion borne within is genuinely affecting. The plaintive plea of Cover Me Up, the desperate but demonstrative Stockholm and the weariness that echoes through the refrain of Travelling Alone all assert sentiments that manage to linger. Add to that, the quiet rumination of Elephant, the climatic frenzy of Flying Over Water, and the transcendent glow of Songs That She Sang in the Shower, and it's apparent Isbell's outdone himself and made an album for the ages.

By every indication then, "Southeastern" is a transitory effort, one in which the songs themselves evoke a sense of displacement and desire to move on. "Jesus loves a sinner, but the highway loves a sin," he declares on Different Days, one of several songs that questions and confronts unsettled circumstance. Whether or not this lonely soul who sings these songs finds his answers remains to be seen. Regardless, Isbell seems to have set a new direction, creating a compelling journey from the start.