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Artists We Love: Jason Isbell

Since Valentine’s Day is coming, I wanted to highlight an artist who has written some of my favorite love songs of late.  Jason Isbell is a singer songwriter with a folky-country bent, think Townes Van Zandt, Ryan Adams, or Patterson Hood (of Isbell’s former band Drive-By-Truckers).  He frequently collaborates with his wife, violinist and fellow singer-songwriter, Amanda Shires, who is the inspiration for many of his most romantic songs.  

As a cold hearted cynic, you’d assume I’d gag at this too cute for words musical power couple.  However, I have to admit, based on the songs their pairing has inspired, they *almost* make believe in love.  Below are some my favorite love songs (and, of course, break up songs) by Isbell:

From the album The Nashville Sound by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

  • “If We Were Vampires”- a duet with Shires about how mortality makes love more meaningful.  This is probably one of Isbell’s best songs and the standout of the album.  “It’s knowing 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/ Or one day you’ll be gone” 
  • “Molotov”- A poppy ode to settling down, this song highlights the sacrifices to one’s freedom a couple has made to get married and have children. The narrator has given up the wild life he thought he’d live, “To burn out like a Molotov/ in the night’s sky.”  Meanwhile, his partner in crime has made sacrifices as well, “Time flies fast while you’re making babies/ Do you miss your little black Mercedes/ Do you miss the girl you once had time to be.”  
  • “Chaos and Clothes”- A wonderful heartbreak song with an Elliot Smith inspired sound, likely written for Isbell’s bestie and recent break up album creator, Ryan Adams.  As a breakup song aficionado, this is one of my favorite songs from the album. The feelings expressed in the song will be recognizable to anyone who has loved and came out worse for wear because of it. “Lovers leave chaos and clothes/ More debris than you sort through in one go/ You say love is hell/ But it’s the ghost of love that’s made you such a mess/ Oh, yes.”

From the album Southeastern by Jason Isbell

  • “Cover Me Up”- This is a flat out gorgeous love song, written for Shires.  Prior to releasing Southeastern, Shires helped convince Isbell to get sober and go to rehab. This song is about how much he needs her and how she helped him recover.  “And the old lover’s sing/ ‘I thought it’d be me who helped him get home’/ But home was a dream/ One I’d never seen till you came along.” 
  • “Live Oak”-This is a song about trusting someone who knows that you have darkness in your past, “There’s a man who walks beside me/ He is who I used be/ And I wonder if she sees him/ And confuses him with me.”  The narrator of the song is a murderer, though Isbell relates to the character’s anxiety of attempting change for the better and wondering if the people he loves will still accept him.  Unsurprisingly, things don’t work out so well for the lady in this song: “Well I carved a cross from live oak/ And a box from shortleaf pine/ And buried her so deep/ She touched the water line.”  This song reminds me of one of my other favorite dark-sided love songs, “The Gardener” by the Tallest Man on Earth, from his Shallow Grave album; about a serial killer who murders several people to prevent his lover from finding out his flaws.