I entirely blame the crapness of the iTunes curators for this, but Jason Isbell and his album Southeastern completely passed me by until recently, when I read about him in an article by one of my two trusted sources for Country music news and information. The first of these is Grady Smith, who has been writing about Country for the Guardian for a while. I think he started around October last year, but it took a while for me to notice, because as far as the Graun is concerned, this is something for their US edition and doesn’t get the prominence on the UK home pages.
The second source is Chuck Dauphin, whose column The 615 on Billboard.com is a useful source of release information. While both sources are male, both are critical of the Country music industry’s current sexism and obsession with (subtextually racist) songs about trucks and beer. Their tastes don’t exactly match with mine, but they at least offer a path to check things out.
The problem with Jason Isbell is that iTunes doesn’t even categorise him under Country but (depending on the album) under Blues or Singer/Songwriter, the latter of which is possibly the least useful genre category that music can offer.
Southeastern came out in 2013 and is under Blues, which is just ridiculous. I mean, yes, all pop music has its roots in the blues, but watch the video above of an excellent performance of the wonderful song ‘Stockholm’ on the Letterman show and tell me you’d file this one under Blues. I love it when a good album has a truly excellent track like that, because it means there is absolutely no work involved in deciding whether I like something or not. So, thanks to whichever of my two sources it was, Grady or Chuck, I downloaded Southeastern and have now pre-ordered the forthcoming Something More Than Free.
I really like his sound – guitars and keys with a bit of violin, it’s quintessentially Country. He has a smooth voice with some break in it and writes great melodies. ‘Stockholm’ is my new jam.
Meanwhile, back in 1980, Bruce Springsteen released an album called The River. There are a few things I remember around the release of this record. The first is that Julie Burchill wrote a scathing review of it in the NME, which was never a publication known for identifying a stone classic on initial release. Turns out, Burchill’s sneering at Springsteen’s use in his lyrics of simple girls’ names ending in -ie or -y (why, like Julie, Julie?) and what she saw as his over-use of cars and highways, was kind of missing the point. The second thing I remember is that the double album was priced as a single and came in a single, non-gatefold sleeve. I was slightly disappointed at the use of tiny black and white photographs (for example of the art installation Cadillac Ranch, immortalised in the song), but can’t knock him for trying to look after his fans’ pockets.
And the final thing I remember is that I got The River for my 18th birthday and left home (just like in the song ‘Independence Day’) about three weeks later.
So what of The River? Did it deserve the Burchill sneers, or does it stack up as the pinnacle of a great musician-songwriter’s career, Springsteen’s equivalent of Blood on the Tracks? Well, of course I’m biased, but there are a number of reasons I think this is his best work. Born in the USA, while it was a huge seller and transformed his career, is spoiled for me through the use of nasty synths and that wardrobe-falling-downstairs-in-a-cathedral 80s drum sound which is just horrible. Following that, Tunnel of Love was less bombastic but equally compromised by 80s production trends, while the Human Touch/Lucky Town release dumps the E Street Band and have the air of a mid-life crisis. They meant a lot to me at the time, but I don’t think they hold up today.
Of course, and to continue to draw the parallel with Dylan, Born to Run is his Highway 61 Revisited, and I’m not for one moment suggesting that it and Darkness on the Edge of Town aren’t essential. But The River has a scale and a breadth and a maturity in terms of songwriting that make it stand out for me.
To address the car thing: yes, it’s not a mistake that so many of the songs feature cars. It’s an album which rests on the automobile as a metaphor for freedom, prosperity and social mobility, Springsteen’s version of the green light in The Great Gatsby. Cars are for driving – but in this case it might be driving your girlfriend’s mum down to the unemployment agency. Or it might be driving endless highways in fear of ending up buried in the ground at the Cadillac Ranch, a symbol of the dead American dream. Or it might mean driving all night because it’s the only job you can find; or driving a stolen car both fearing and hoping you’ll get caught. It’s about the way you keep doing the thing you used to do because it’s all you know how to do, because you don’t know how to change and are trapped in your life.
I repurchased The River for the third time (!) the other day and I’ve been listening to it as an album for the first time in over 20 years. Whereas my restless younger self would keep skipping tracks and playing favourites over and over, as was my habit, I’ve been listening all the way through, from start to finish. And it’s great. Not a single dud track, which is incredible, given its length. It helps that my younger daughter is really into Springsteen right now, and it’s so great to be seeing this stuff through her fresh perspective. You cease to doubt something’s status as a classic when it speaks so powerfully to a different generation, 35 years on. Thirty-five years, and it sounds fresh and bright and full of raw emotion – and a river runs through it.
In many ways a pessimistic album, it was released at the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and the start of the decline of our civil society into the cauldron of nasty selfishness that has replaced human decency and empathy as far as political discourse is concerned. But to listen to The River is to remember that humanist values are still the best that we have, and that our ability to empathise with other people is what makes us good.
An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway
Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway