“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.