All of this hurts. It hurts because it’s Mississippi, because it’s north-central Mississippi. Grisham’s damn The Chamber took place here, and also in Tennessee, sure, which is a totally different story. The Mississippi story included a firebombing and a hate-murder, though. That really hurts.
If that one doesn’t stay with you for a time, that’s unspeakable. Stop reading.
This is Isbell, who knows things too much. He probably reads Grisham and others, at least hopefully he’s read the damn Chamber.
How can Isbell — an outsider — know us, Mississippians, this well? Isbell knows you better than you know yourself, and that’s frightening. But how?
'Cause in a razor town
The only thing that matters
Tends to bring you down
And there's no way around
But maybe you can barrel through
'Cause a razor ain't no good for you
What the hell is a razor town, exactly? Everyone carries a razor, a blade? Thucydides said that the hallmark of civilization was when the Athenians decided that they would no longer carry weapons within the city limits of Athens. No tools of death were a prerequisite for a civilized people.
But this razor town has a history. You’ve been here before, because you’ve been cut before. We all have. This razor town has edges.
Y’all ever heard about Orpheus? Orpheus was the greatest musician of all time in the ancient world. Orpheus’ wife got snake-bit and died. Her name was Eurydice, and Orpheus had the chance to go get her out from Hell. Only thing was, he couldn’t look back at her as they climbed out of the Underworld. And he did. And she descended back into Hell. Goodbye, Eurydice, forever. She gone.
Jason Isbell’s “In a Razor Town” apologizes not for Eurydice’s death, because this razor town has seen many deaths before. Eurydice turned back to death, and there’s nothing you can do but look back. She mutates.
Take a long last look
Before she turns to stone
This isn’t Eurydice’s fault. It’s his fault. It’s always his fault. It’s Adam’s fault, after all, he was fooled by woman and she by the Devil himself. It’s always him. It’s always ugly and it’s always loud. Anyway, she wasn’t that happy to begin with.
It's a big machine
It used to be the avenue of changing dreams
And she's a lonely thing, sweeping up the glitter
While she pulls the strings
Orpheus, as tradition has it, turned entirely toward men and nature after losing his wife. And for that the Bacchae — the drunk women of Thebes, the excellent celebrants of Bacchus — tore him limb from limb. His head — constantly singing — continued to croon until it was changed into a block monument on the island of Lesbos, the home of Sappho. She of the erotic Greek poetry.
“In a Razor Town” is erotic, if only in squinting, oblique terms. The song’s slow, it’s soft, it’s long, it’s solemn. This is tragic.
You know I've heard her say
That you're the only reason she's alive today
And I just turned away
Thinking maybe she was right
This song isn’t necessarily about a woman, but its welcoming verse invites that reading.
In a razor town you take whoever
You think you can keep around
There's an echoed sound
That permeates the sidewalk
Where she shuffles 'round
This is clearly about a bad but necessary breakup. We’ve all been here. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. Get rid of him. “Let her go out if she wants to.” Sound advice. Let it go.