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Here’s a cheerful Jason Isbell song about ... codeine?


The New Yorker Festival 2016 - Jason Isbell Talks With John Seabrook And Performs Live Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Maybe not all of us have been close to a drug or alcohol addict, but it’s godawful. Heroin perhaps most so, followed by alcohol, because recovery from that particular mistress just doesn’t work out all the time. Those demons sit hard and deep and knife-edged. And the withdrawals from both will kill you.

Addiction, addicts, hurt always. Addicts mostly always know that they hurt, but not regularly in any real mutational sense that will lead toward real change. It’s easier to continue, after all. That’s human nature. Maybe. It’s painful, and it’s a condition that absolutely no one should pass judgement on. Addiction is a medical, physiological disorder that’s killed the most inspired among us. Addiction is a disease.

Jason Isbell is a sad as hell guy, and it’s only appropriate that he should write about addiction. After all, opioid addiction attends the south most pervasively, a tragedy that doesn’t appear to abate anytime soon. Isbell’s from the south, and he knows southerners.

We’re getting there. This song’s about codeine. And codeine should be excised from modern medicine.

How then do you write such an upbeat tune about a prescription drug meant to wane heroin addicts off of their preferred cocktail? A prescription drug that often leads to dependence on that very prescription drug?

Why is that violin so high up there? Why is Isbell so nonchalant in his lyricing? Is this on purpose? Yes, it’s totally on purpose. Because addiction hurts. This is the deepest depth of the human condition met with ... musicality? Met with happy listening and the constant musical “One of my friends is taking her in and giving her codeine” style? Where are we? Is codeine actually good now? No, it’s not.

You oughta come home tonight but you won't.
I wish we knew how to fight but we don't.

God that’s painful. The pure wish for a fight at home. A roaring, screaming, terrible fight. A fight where the cops get called. Why not. A fight that brings the neighbors to the door to ask if everything’s alright. Yeah, it’s just a minor dispute.

That’s what addiction does, though. It rips people apart. It shreds all the bonds of being a human, and one drops out of this human experience. Addiction drops you into a well with no avenues up and out. There’s a ladder, but it’s rickety as all hell, and you better be careful as all hell.

How does this song begin here?

If there's one thing I can't stand
It's this bar and this cover band
Trying to fake their way through 'Castles Made of Sand'.
That's one thing I can't stand.

So we start at the bar. Appropriately enough. No triggers here. But this song isn’t about the bar. It isn’t about Isbell at the bar. It’s not about us at the bar. This song is about a woman who’s strung the hell out. But she’s trying to get help. With codeine.

She should be home by now but she ain't.
I should've gone by now but I cain't.
One of my friends has taken her in and given her codeine.
One of my friends has taken her in and given her codeine.

But mercy, this song gets dark, despite the fact that it’s one of the most up-tempo cuts on the album “Here We Rest.” Here’s Isbell looking at his addict bartender, without judgement.

Them eyes was big as stars
When I saw you behind the bar.
I guess that's the way to keep on smilin' where you are.
But girl them eyes was big as stars.

Them eyes was as big as stars. It’d be nearly ... poetic ... if it wasn’t so goddamn tragic. How do you keep smiling as a bartender woman in a stupid ass dive bar without ... something to help you through?

There’s something about her, though. There’s something that eats into you, but not in any real physical sense. These are drunk southern men, after all. And women, we guess.

If there's two things that I hate
It's having to cook and trying to date.
Busting ass all day to play hurry up and wait.
That's a few things that I hate.

Having to cook and trying to date. Why not. Is this our grand dismissal of commitment? What about our bartender? What happens to her? What happens to us? What the hell happens to Isbell, for that matter?

One of your friends is taking you in and giving you codeine and Jason Isbell wrote a cheery-ass song about that.

But with you gone, this place looks bigger than it should.

Is this a celebration? A relief? A lament? A ... fallout? What happens to our bartender after this? It’s probably less important that we know than that we sit here and watch her try to recover. This is addiction, after all. That’s one thing I can’t stand.