People who claim that Southeastern was Jason Isbell’s breakthrough are mitigating the excellence of his earlier work. Songs like “Outfit,” “Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Danko/Manuel,” from his stint with the Drive-By Truckers, and “Dress Blues,” “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine,” from his first few albums leading the 400 Unit, already signaled a singular songwriting talent. But it is fair to say that Southeastern, released in 2013, is the album where Isbell’s following started to significantly widen, with “Cover Me Up,” the album’s opening track, serving as the tipping point for the groundswell.
As Isbell told NPR, “Cover Me Up,” a retelling of the early stages of his romance with Amanda Shires, whom he married shortly after finishing Southeastern, wasn’t an easy one to write. “That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal,” Isbell recalled. “It’s not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say, ‘This is how much I love you,’ you know? It’s scary to do that.”
That kind of honesty is what draws many people to Isbell’s work, which is why it’s not surprising that “Cover Me Up” also encompasses his recovery from substance abuse issues. “But I sobered up and swore off that stuff/ Forever this time,” he sings in the second verse. Yet that only comes in the wake of his admitting to his former bad behavior: “Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress/ In Richmond on high.”
“Cover Me Up” also expresses the way that romantic love is inseparable from vulnerability. In the first verse, Isbell looks back at his former, raging ways, realizing that it was a futile attempt to fill up some undefined hole: “I was so sure what I needed was more/ Tried to shoot out the sun.” Yet he stumbles into redemptive love anyway: “But I made it through, ‘cause somebody knew/ I was made for someone.”
Another trademark of Isbell’s work that can be found in “Cover Me Up” is his ability to slip sly humor into even the most intense moments. Hence the chorus when he sings, “Girl leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room/ Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.” In between the harrowing recollections and the winking one-liners comes clear-eyed, hard-earned sentiment: “But home was a dream, one I’d never seen till you came along.”
It all leads to the lines in the chorus which speak volumes about the nature of a loving relationship: “Cover me up and know you’re enough/ To use me for good.” Notice the subtle way that Isbell pulls double-meanings out of this seemingly simple exhortation. She will cover him in the moment for warmth and, in the bigger picture, for protection from all the demons that once ensnared him. “For good” can mean both that his search for meaning is over and that his self-destructive tendencies have now been squelched as he aims toward creating something positive.
Southeastern opens with “Cover Me Up,” the album’s emotional fulcrum. It was a bold gambit, especially considering some of the darker material that follows it on the album, but it works because the song itself isn’t free of darkness. We need to hear it right off the bat, because relationships like the one depicted so artfully by Jason Isbell in the song can act as a buffer against the bleak.