On Jason Isbell, survivor's guilt, and how I still want to send you a postcard.
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON MAY 13, 2020
You know a songwriter is talented when the line between truth and fiction in their music blurs into something that feels undeniably real regardless of its inspiration. Jason Isbell has made his name by sharing moments and life lessons that may or may not have happened. Much like his hero, John Prine (RIP), Isbell is a transcendent storyteller capable of conveying complex emotions and picture-perfect moments through song. It's hard to tell where his experiences end and where those his imagination begins, but the feeling you get throughout remains the same.
"Only Children" is one of many songs to be released ahead of Isbell's seventh studio album, Reunions. It was the first track written for the record, which arrives everywhere May 15, and its one of his most beautiful works to date. That's saying something for an individual that has been named one of the best living songwriters for over a decade by dozens of critics and publications, but it's nonetheless true.
Singing atop gentle accompaniment from acoustic guitars and drums played with brushes, Isbell tells the story of two children growing up in the same small town with dreams of making it big. One of the two is remembering their childhood together, and the way things way felt simpler at the time.
Cold coffee on the fire escape
We bet it all on a demo tape
And we still had something left to steal
Remember when we took too much?
To get a little of the human touch
Hand to mouth and reel to reel
As the song moves to its bridge and final chorus, listeners learn the other child has passed. We don't know when or how it happened, but death came before the deceased child realized their dreams. Isbell provides us with visions of a mother in mourning and asks the questions that fill the minds of those left behind. Do the dead still pursue things? Do they think and feel like us, or are they mere whispers in the wind? He has no answers, but his delivery tells us that he made peace with that fact long ago.
"Heaven's wasted on the dead"
That's what your mama said
When the hearse was idling in the parking lot
She said you thought the world of me
And you were glad to see
They finally let me be an astronaut
Are you still taking notes?
Will you have anyone to talk to?
Castle walls that you could walk through
And do the dead believe in ghosts?
Or are you lost in some old building
With over encouraged, only children
Isbell's attempts to grapple with the permanence of death resonates with the listener because it speaks to a particular element of survivor's guilt we all experience in life. As we age and our once tight friendships unravel as a result of different paths through life, loss of any kind is inevitable. Whether that means someone is dying or losing themselves to addiction, everyone loses someone they love. Even those that are lost do some losing, often more than most. That's the cold hard truth of existence.
There is no easy way to learn that your best friend is going to die. The two of you probably have a lot of plans, including turning 30 and starting families of your own, but my friend Justin never had that chance. He was born with a rare blood disorder that revealed itself shortly after he graduated from college and settled into his first full-time job. Countless tests followed, none of which provided any hope. He then spent the better part of two years living in and out of hospitals, and while he fought as hard as he could, he knew there was no cure.
Justin and I did everything together. We met shortly after starting college and immediately began collaborating on every project we could imagine. I starred in his indie films, and he contributed to my music blog. We saw ourselves as the next great creative duo, and we often spoke of how we would help the world learn to see things from our perspective through the art we made. We kept that idea alive to his very last day, making notes and plotting the next creation that would change our lives, but he didn't live long enough to see the fruits of his labor.
I'll write more about our relationship and the songs that shaped it down the line, but I need to bring Justin up here because of everything that followed his passing. My professional life has flourished in recent years. Though I've not come close to doing everything we set out to accomplish together, I have certainly come further than any of us anticipated. The same is true for our friend group. Every time one of us excels in their chosen path, we take a moment to pause and remember Justin. We question where he would be and how he would want us to celebrate. Those who drink or smoke tend to have another round or another puff in his honor. Those who celebrate with meals choose to consume something slightly more decadent. We carry him with us everywhere, and we tell ourselves that is what he would want.
But I often wonder if he cares, or if he even knows what we're doing on this little blue ball floating through endless space. I choose to believe he does, just as many of you probably believe those you've lost follow you and cheer for your every step, but maybe we're wrong. Perhaps the souls of those who leave us now exist on an ethereal plane that is an inconceivable distance away from where we live. Maybe they're too busy reconnecting with the creator of all things to think about us. Maybe they don't think at all.
Regardless, I want to urge you to take something to heart: Your successes are yours alone. You can and should thank those that helped you, but never fall victim to the belief you owe anyone anything in this life. The world is a careless monster that feeds on hopes and dreams and the way that cars guzzle gasoline. It's hard enough to keep your head above water with the stress you place on yourself. You do not need or deserve the weight of other people on your ambitions. You honor the people you lose by remaining true to your intentions and striving to make the best of each day. If you fall short, that's fine. Shake the dirt off, hold your head high, and keep on keeping on. That's what everyone wants for you, but more importantly, that's what you should want for yourself.