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The Meaning of Jason Isbell’s “Elephant”

Jason Isbell in 2013.

Jason Isbell’s “Elephant” is the heartbreaking fourth track from his 2013 album, Southeastern. The album received widespread critical and public acclaim for Isbell’s touching and relatable songwriting, and also includes the fan-favorite “Cover Me Up”.

“Elephant” tells the story of watching a dear friend as she slowly dies from cancer, reminiscing on time spent together and how their relationship has changed ever since the illness took over.

The lyrics suggest, but don’t fully make clear, that the pair may have been past lovers, but they do make clear that the narrator, Andy, feels a heavy weight he spends his final moments with this woman.

Right from the first verse, you can feel this weight as Andy recalls spending time with her in a familiar barroom:

She said Andy, you’re better than your past
Winked at me and drained her glass
Cross-legged on a barstool, like nobody sits anymore
She said “Andy you’re taking me home”
But I knew she planned to sleep alone
I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from her floor

First verse to “Elephant” by Jason Isbell.

The opening line suggests a past relationship between the two that was different than the current arrangement, and was most likely sexual. However at this point, she is too weak for the relationship to be sexual, although she still wants Andy to take her home. This shows an intense depth of caring and friendship, with Andy carrying her to bed as she loses more and more hair from the cancer.

In the second verse, Isbell reveals more about the relationship between these two friends, and each of their respective characters. He really grabs you with that first line, ringing out over the song’s quiet arrangement, “If I fucked her before she got sick, I’d never hear the end of it”.

In an interview with American Songwriter that took place in 2013, shortly after the release of Southeastern, Isbell explains his thought process behind the use of the lyric:

It hits you pretty hard, doesn’t it? But I couldn’t think of a better way to say it. That’s just how that character would’ve phrased it, so I had to say it that way.

Jason Isbell on the lyrics to “Elephant”.

In the second verse we can see that the two are regulars at the bar, and perhaps alcoholics, as Isbell was known to be during his time with Drive-By Truckers and really right up until the creation of Southeastern.

Jason Isbell live in 2011, pre-sobriety. Photo by Chris La Putt.

Together the two friends “bitch about the weekend crowd”, meaning that they spend a lot of time in this place during the week, when the bar is slow. On the weekends it is busier, and they notice and complain about it as bar regulars are known to do.

However, there is a deeper element to this image, as the pair are actively trying to avoid talking about the cancer, which is portrayed in the song as an “elephant in the room”. The cancer weighs so heavily on their minds that they jump to complaining about the crowd just so they don’t have to talk about the cancer.

As the song progresses, so does the cancer in Andy’s dear friend, and she grows increasingly weak until he resorts to playing classic country songs to her while they “burn these joints in effigy and cry about what we used to be”. This means that Andy and his friend are burning joints in protest of the reality that cancer has inflicted on their lives.

The final verse has Andy reflecting on the moment of impending death, which he has replayed over and over in his mind:

I’ve buried her a thousand times, given up my place in line
But I don’t give a damn about that now
There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: No one dies with dignity
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow
We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

Final lyrics to “Elephant” by Jason Isbell.

With these closing lyrics, Isbell shows that Andy recognizes the sacrifices that he has made to be there for this woman, but he wouldn’t trade those moments for anything now. Isbell also throws in a nugget of truth about how “No one dies with dignity”, meaning that death comes knocking for all of us one day, and it’s hard no matter how you view it.

In that same 2013 interview with American Songwriter, Isbell explains the memories that inspired “Elephant”:

I’ve spent a lot of time at little bars in Alabama, getting to know a lot of people who’d eventually disappear. It’s kinda like that scene in Rent, when everyone starts vanishing. It was that way in this particular bar. I was dating the bartender, who was young, real sweet and kindhearted, and I said, “You know, these people aren’t gonna be around forever. You’re gonna get connected to these old drunks, and they’re just gonna vanish. Every few months, another one’s gonna be gone.”

The song just came from that place – from having that connection with someone whose ship is going down, and allowing the relationship to mature in spite of that. Two people are sitting on barstools for a long period of time, and one person gets sick, and the other rises to the occasion.

Jason Isbell on the meaning of “Elephant”

Listen to “Elephant” by Jason Isbell below.