“She said, ‘Andy, you’re better than your past’ / Winked at me and drained her glass / Cross-legged on the barstool like nobody sits anymore.”
In these opening lines, Jason Isbell culls his listener with the vivid imagery, authentic voice, and sexual tension that spills from the edges of “Elephant.” The words reach out of the speakers and clutch your throat, threatening to crush your layrnx. So you listen as if your life depends upon it.
“Elephant” is honest songwriting that isn’t handed out often these days, or any days for that matter — a prescription to medicate the narcissistic anthems that abound.
Isbell continues, “She said, ‘Andy, you’re taking me home’ / But I knew she planned to sleep alone / I’d carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.” God, the tenderness of sweeping up the hair of the cancer patient Andy wishes to sleep along side. I feel the song give a sharp squeeze to my throat. What’s beautiful about these lines is that Isbell doesn’t fall into the melodramatic; rather, he lets his details show us the complex emotions Andy is feeling. All songwriters take note of the nuance.
Here’s the kicker: “If I had fucked her before she got sick / I’d never hear the end of it / She don’t have the spirit for that now.” It’s the aching desire of all great writing wrapped up into twenty-four words — it’s the human condition, the wanting of what we can’t have. The use of the pejorative here adds to the raw energy of this song. It’s not a song about the easy emotions of love; it’s a song about death and loss and fucking. It’s an open wound.
“Elephant” also doesn’t commit the sin of being an earnest song about someone dying of cancer. The song contains humor. The dying woman gets drunk and makes cancer jokes with her “sharecropper eyes and her hair almost gone.” Isbell hits all the emotional notes available to him in this story. We laugh despite our tears.
As the song continues, Andy and this woman sing country songs and smoke dope. Isbell writes, “We’d burn these joints in effigy / Cry about what used to be / And try to ignore the elephant somehow.” Isbell elevates the act of smoking to a grand gesture of protest against their impending injustice.
In the narrator’s final epiphany, he wails, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.” Those lines are chilling and appropriate for this narrator. He goes through this experience and understands that life will fuck you up and won’t even allow you a proper goodbye.
“Elephant” is a song about cancer and drinking and smoking and singing country songs, but Isbell hoists it to greatness. It’s a song about being human, with all the pain and ecstasy that entails. It holds you by the throat with a whisper. It’s a song too honest for the Grammy’s, but for my money, it’s the best song written in 2013.
Most all of Jason’s song are real, everyday moments that main stream country ignore’s. No bubble gum, candy ass lyrics here!……..Great music, Great song!
I couldn’t agree more. His sound and lyrics are a refreshing oasis in this bastion of inauthentic musical puffery.
Nailed it, a great examination of a great song!
Thanks, Zach. This song knocks me out of my seat with every listen. Isbell pulled this one from somewhere honest and deep.
I’ve yet to be able to listen to Elephant without tearing up.
I’m with you on that one. So good.
Hi. I’ve recently discovered The Drive by Truckers and Jason Isbell and I was blown away by the album SouthEastern and Elephant in particular. I came across your blog whilst reasearching the lyrics and I couldn’t agree more. Awesome song.
As a songwriter, and a cancer survivor, I am truly blown away by this song. It made me want to rip up my own songs about my experiences. Fortunately, I came down from that.
I hear ya, this song is
About as authentic as it gets. I’ve been trying to watch the CMA butt fuck and I just can’t get irritated at why guys like Jason, and Mandolin Orange are not blowing people away. But we all know how the corn capital of the world operates. If ain’t cheesy, it ain’t Nashville.
I know I’m late to the party, but I just discovered this song today, and God it’s wrecking.
I just discovered it a few weeks ago, and I marvel at guys like him and their song writing chops. I’m not worthy.
Same here, Jon. Just heard this for the first time today. Incredible song.
John Mayer called Jason Isbell “The greatest songwriter of his generation” and I’d have to agree. Listening to “Elephant” is like getting the wind knocked out of you…..but in a good way.
“Surrounded by family. I saw she was dying alone” Devastating
Just listening to the demo version of the song as I write this – I looked up the lyrics and stumbled onto this site – yours is a brilliant response to this searing piece of work – I hope that you haven’t missed ‘What it Means’ by Mr Isbell’s former bandmates – maybe the best song of 2016….?
Keep well, Mr Patterson.
Grabbing by the throat is an understatement (for me). This song hits me like a Mike Tyson punch every single time I hear it, lyrically and melodically. This song is sweet perfection, just sweet, simple, elegant perfection. Not many sweeter or more poignant in my opinion, it will take a special song indeed to surpass this work of art. Great for a great cry.
Just discovered Isbell today, and your blog as well. You’re on point regarding E, bre.
the tune and your review.
I’m actually ashamed, as a seeker and lover of great masterful songwriting, that I somehow missed this one- even after having learned and covered “Cover Me Up” in my solo shows for over a year now. This popped up on a Spotify playlist, and I actually had to pull over as I drove through the mountains on one of those misty days that lends itself to being emotionally opened up, anyway. I’ve been saying “This Isbell guy is someday going to write something very, very special”. Nope. I was wrong.
He already has.
I introduced a friend to Jason Isbell recently. He told me, “The thing is… I believe him.” I thought that was a poignant way of saying what an incredible songwriter he is.
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