#53: Jason Isbell – ‘Elephant’ (2013)

Unlike taxes, Texas or taxi-cabs, death doesn’t discriminate. Sure, there are certain steps you can take to decrease – or increase – your chances of it happening sooner rather than later, but in the end, it’s all a big genetic lottery. It turns out that the fruit and white bread that built us strong when we were kids might have been killing us all along, while in the last few years both alcohol and coffee have been the cause of and solution to most of the ailments we’ve bothered to give names to, and probably a few we haven’t yet. Calories don’t matter anymore, sugar causes everything, some fats have graduated to being good fats, and all carbs are off limits now. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, yet skipping it can give you a blast of energy that soaking yourself in bacon and butter doesn’t seem to achieve. Regular drinking is good for stress levels, which is good for blood pressure, which is good for your literal and metaphorical heart. Caffeine was instrumental to the Age of Enlightenment but Coca Cola rots your teeth, shreds your stomach lining and can strip the rust off those coins nobody bothers to collect anymore. George Burns chain-smoked cigars until he was 100, while some babies are born allergic to the earth. Maybe we are eating the wrong animals? Maybe it’s all this fluoride in the water? Hell, maybe it’s all this water. Who said we need water?

Which is all to say: nobody knows anything, really. We are all just working it out: what to avoid, what to absorb more of, and how to balance it all so we don’t die too soon. But we all die too soon. ‘Elephant’ is a song about someone who knows she is dying too soon, spending time with someone who also knows she is dying too soon. They both pretend she isn’t.

By all rights, using the well-worn elephant in the room metaphor as a song’s main hook and conceit should make this a terrible pile of obvious trash, but it’s not – it’s stunning, and underplayed and surrounded by so much special, stark poetry that you don’t mind it. You don’t even feel the need to discuss it, should you be listening with company. It becomes the elephant in the room. It’s genius.

As stated, sickness, death, life etc. isn’t special nor is it particular graceful. Fittingly, there is a lack of sentimentality that pervades this song. It’s a weeper primarily because it really isn’t tearful about its tale. There is no cloying, cheesy drama, and the song is punctuated pointedly by swearing and weed references which helpfully steers it away from sitting alongside such easy sentimentality on country radio daytime playlists. The elephant in the room metaphor might be the song’s hook, but it’s true motto is “no-one dies with dignity.”

But is that line true? The closest thing to a dignified exit seems to be the one chronicled here: in which they ignore the presence of death all together, burning joints, flirting, laughing, and continuing to live their messy lives until that otherwise unremarkable day comes when one of them stops living – and the other continues to do so for a while.

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

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