Album of the Year: Weathervanes
Southeastern Records 2023
Standout Songs: Death Wish, King of Oklahoma, Middle of the Morning.
Ten years ago, I was sitting in my office at Mississippi State University, having just advised a young student on a history paper, when I heard a song through the thin Allen Hall walls next door. I could make out every word. By the time I took it all in, I was on the verge of tears. I walked next door and knocked.
“Who is that you’re listening to?” I said.
Jason Isbell was the answer. The song was “Elephant.”
I was familiar with Isbell from his time in the Drive-By Truckers, but I had lost track since his split with the band. I knew he’d struggled with alcoholism, but was unaware he’d gone to rehab to address it. What I was now aware of was that the album he’d produced since his recovery, Southeastern, was the best record I’d heard in years. Top to bottom, the record was a masterpiece. The writing was sublime. The stories were fully imagined and raw. And the whole was greater than all its perfect parts.
Fast forward to 2023, and Isbell has again given us a record that, while not as perfect as Southeastern, is the closest he’s come to recreating the magic he gave us a decade ago.
From the opening chords of Weathervanes, Isbell unflinchingly explores the themes of addiction, uncertainty, racism, loss, and the stark reality of America in the twenty-first century.
Album openers, "Death Wish" and "King of Oklahoma," perfectly capture the lives of people who are either longing to help those struggling with addiction or those who are trapped in its jaws trying to find a better way. You know the people in these two songs. I know you do. If you don’t, you won’t have to look hard to find them. Families across the country deal with the challenges Isbell so deftly describes. I’ve seen what drugs like methamphetamine and Oxycontin can do to people. It’s hard. It’s hard on everyone. Isbell captures that pain, but not in trauma porn dirges full of woe-is-me bad poetry, but in a way that offers hope for those caught in the snare of addiction. There is truth here. Hard truth that we as a nation don’t dare to face. We hide our eyes from the reality of what the “other folks” deal with daily. We write “Crack and pill heads” off as zombies roaming the streets at night and view them as freaks who cannot cope with life. We poke fun and never stop to think that those people have a momma. Just like you. A momma, a sister, a brother, a father, a granny probably worried shitless that when the phone rings, it will be a call telling them something they always knew was coming.
Weathervanes is not just a record about the darker side of life. There are some stone-cold rockers on here as well. “Middle of the Morning” is a perfect Van Morrison-esque dive into the mind of a Southern man struggling with the curtain falling on his youth and trying to deal with the onset of middle age. For a lot of us, we are there. We know the feeling of trying to shine a light in the darkness only to find you have to hit that flashlight a couple of times to make it shine.
“This Ain’t It” is a rollicking good time of a song where the narrator tries his best to woo a high school sweetheart away from an unhappy marriage and into a friends-with-benefits situation to suit them “better.”
Weathervanes is a stunning record by the best songwriter America has to offer. You may not like Isbell’s politics, I ain't judging, you do you, hoss, but you cannot deny he is a force of nature when it comes to crafting lyrics that speak to the very core of what it means to be alive right now.
Song of the Year: In Your Love
Rustin’ In the Rain
Hickman Holler 2023
Sadly, the controversy surrounding the video for this song has been a sad example of people who have no concept of love trying to steal happiness from those who do. But what you cannot deny is the sheer emotive power Childers writes with on “In Your Love.” The song is simply a perfect love song.
Some will hammer me, telling me that the best ode to undying love is Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires,” but Childers eclipses that with his delivery of lines like:
We were never made to run forever
We were just meant to go long enough
To find what we were chasing after
I believe I found it here in your love.
The feeling of loving someone so hard you could die and know you’ve lived a life full of as much happiness as possible is something we all long for. If you want to ring in the New Year right, put it on, grab your lover, spin them around the living room floor, and pin a kiss on them when it’s over. I promise you, you won’t have felt anything so powerful in a long time. Hell, it might save a relationship you didn’t know was in trouble. They might smile. You might smile. And y’all might…. Well… Happy New Year!
DAN RUSSELL is a writer. His work has appeared in The Arkansas Review, Cowboy Jamboree, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Tributary, Close to the Bone, and You Might Need to Hear This. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University-St. Paul.