Jason Isbell, as undislikable as it gets

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the brand of Isbell’s electric guitar. He played a Duesenberg, not a Les Paul. This version has been updated.


Jason Isbell at the 9:30 Club. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

For a song about being sloshed, Jason Isbell’s “Streetlights” is striking for its loveliness and lucidity. It starts on a bar stool, gets a little fuzzy and ends in a gorgeous spasm of nostalgia. When the 34-year-old Alabama troubadour sang it at the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night, he was more of a narrator than a singer, his audience hanging on every rhyme.

The guy has penned buckets of songs like that one — strummy ballads brimming with regret and redemption and copious little narrative details necessary to make them believable. But as earnest as he sounded Tuesday, Isbell’s performance still registered somewhere between excellent and just fine. He was undislikable.

The undislikables occupy a unique space in pop music. Their songs are filled with personality and emotion, but never too much. They experiment, but not without safety goggles. They put a premium on craftsmanship and confidence, often stamping out any whiffs of danger or weirdness. And their music seems unimpeachable, leaving you with an in-the-middle feeling that makes you wonder whether these people have achieved a state of enlightenment or have been trapped in purgatory.

Among today’s undislikables, Elvis Costello stands as a pioneer. Emerging at a time when punk had to show hideous fangs to make rock-and-roll feel threatening again, Costello’s songs were smart, sturdy and resistant to chaos. He was also terrific with words.

And if your lyrics are highly legible and even somewhat interesting, you’re well on your way to undislikabililty. It’s a realm particularly accessible to contemporary singer-songwriters, from Neko Case to Josh Ritter, to Isbell’s alt-country forbears, Steve Earle and John Prine.

It transcends genre, though. In hip-hop, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots each arrived on the scene as innovators, then slowly floated off into undislikability. In rock, Wilco, My Morning Jacket and the Alabama Shakes have always fit the bill.

But to be undislikable, you can’t be too famous. Celebrity invites contempt, which means Bruce Springsteen and Justin Timberlake have long been disqualified.

Above all, the undislikables are incredibly reliable. They rarely take massive risks, and their consistency inspires fierce loyalty. Evangelical fans can snap with incredulity if you don’t adore their hero as much as they do. The undislikables only strengthen that devotion by being incredibly charismatic, which means they’re always better onstage than on record.

That was apparent Tuesday night the moment Isbell, formerly of Southern rock cult-faves Drive-By Truckers, launched into “Super 8,” a song about sucking down Pedialyte after a near-death experience. Sporting a black denim jacket and a slicked-back ’do that refused to budge, he made his throat growl and his electric guitar roar. When he followed it with some banter about never being able to pull this big of a crowd at the 9:30 again, it seemed like the only disingenuous moment of the night.

That’s because Isbell’s flock is more devoted than ever, thanks to “Southeastern,” a recent album filled with eloquent stories that obliquely allude to the singer’s well-publicized struggles with alcoholism. He sang just about all of them in a tone that signaled resurgence — especially while harmonizing on “Stockholm” with his wife and fiddle player, Amanda Shires.

But Isbell sounded strongest during “Decoration Day,” his signature tune with the Truckers. His voice was gritty, but it didn’t chafe. His guitar solo was loud but not wild. It was as undislikable as it gets.

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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