If I told you that Jason Isbell’s “Elephant” is the greatest song ever written about dying of cancer, would you listen to it?
That’s okay. I probably wouldn’t either.
A lot of people don’t like to be sad when they listen to music. They’d rather be dancing or shouting or driving with the wind in their hair. But “Elephant”, an absolutely stunning folk song from Isbell’s 2013 album Southeastern, deserves the effort.
The song starts mid-conversation at a bar, like you’re dropping in on somebody else’s Saturday night. Indeed, the first verse goes by under the radar, like you don’t know what’s going on. That all changes when you get hit with the first chorus: “If I’d fucked her before she got sick, I’d never hear the end of it. But she don’t have the spirit for that now.”
What seemed like a twinkly sort of normal country ballad gets shoved away in favor of something immediately visceral. It’s the perfect way to grab your attention, as the two people in the song try to ignore the titular “Elephant” in the room with cancer jokes, music, drugs, alcohol…anything to make life feel a little more like it used to. It wouldn’t be as haunting (or beautiful) without Isbell’s gifted lyricism. In under four minutes, he paints a picture filled with little details—“Seagrams in a coffee cup, sharecropper eyes and her hair almost gone”, “cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore”—that eventually lead to some real, hard truths. I don’t think a single songwriter in ten thousand could write a line infused with as much pathos as ones like “surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.”
Look, I’ve been enraptured by music for practically my entire life. I’ve danced to mindless grooves and felt infinite with my foot on the gas. I’ve shouted along with tens of thousands of people like a line was strung from my vocal cord to everyone else’s. But as much as I’d rather be doing all of those things on a Saturday night, I think you can only truly love a sad song. Because true love makes the rest of the world recede. It is a 1:1 ratio—it’s finding something or someone that understands you, even if it’s just for a minute, in the dark.
So please, give “Elephant” a chance to speak to you some night. It might be hard to hear, but it’s a poignant, nuanced, at times funny story that’s worth listening to.
Play this song: When you can take a minute to let it wash over you, whether you’re driving home some night or sitting at the desk in your den.