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The Meaning of Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires”

Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires” is one of the most powerful love songs I have personally ever heard. Released in 2017 on the Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album The Nashville Sound, “If We Were Vampires” explores the reality of death as a constant of life, within the context of a long-term romantic relationship.

Isbell’s lyrics on this topic are moving because they describe a universal experience, as you age and figure out who is truly important to you. Even when you decide who to keep around, who to marry, who to start a family with. One day, one of you is going to die before the other, and leave behind a lifetime’s worth of love and memories.

It is a difficult topic to think about, and despite being a song about marriage, the way Isbell presents the topic can even inspire deep reflection in those who are single, or struggling to connect with a loved one. He presents a melancholic appreciation for that special person in his life, and the conclusion put forward is to cherish the moments you do get to share with your loved ones, because you never know when your time together will come to a close.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t been moved to tears by “If We Were Vampires” on several occasions. I’m certainly not alone in this regard, as not only is this one of Isbell’s most popular songs, it also won the Grammy award in 2018 for “Best American Roots Song”.

“If We Were Vampires” Origins

Isbell himself acknowledged the touching qualities of “If We Were Vampires” when country music blog The Boot asked him about the song’s meaning. He himself was moved to tears the first few times he played it for his wife, Amanda Shires. He also recalls being encouraged by her directly to go write music prior to writing it.

This he told them in October 2018:

I was watching Hoarders — it didn’t inspire the song, but I’ll get around to the song. So I was watching Hoarders, and Amanda came in, and said, “You’re going into the studio on Monday. You need to stop watching Hoarders and write.”

And I said, “I don’t want to. I’ve got enough songs.” And she said, “No, you have to. Anybody can watch Hoarders, but you have a record to make.”

So I turned off the Hoarders and started writing, and that is the song I wrote.

And I’m really grateful to her for lighting the fire under my a– and making me work that day, because that song turned out to be pretty special to a lot of people. It was even really moving for me, the first few times I tried to play it for [Shires]. In fact, at first, I couldn’t even get through it; I had to turn around and leave the room and come back in and try again. That’s when I knew it could be a really special song to a lot of people.

Jason Isbell on the origin of “If We Were Vampires”, 2018.

The thought of Isbell not being able to get through it while performing it in private for the first time means that this song came from a very personal place. Not only was it a personal place for him, though, but one that also resonates with the universal human experience, which is what makes this song such a beautiful work of art.

“If We Were Vampires” Lyrics Meaning

Now that we’ve got the backstory and the general idea down, it’s time to dive into a deeper analysis of the lyrics to see how Isbell accomplishes such a pure distillation of love and relationships.

Starting with the first verse, where Isbell sings of the special things he perceives in his relationship, both large and small:

It’s not the long, flowing dress that you’re in
Or the light coming off of your skin
The fragile heart you protected for so long
Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong
It’s not your hands searching slow in the dark
Or your nails leaving love’s watermark
It’s not the way you talk me off the roof
Your questions like directions to the truth

First verse to Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires”.

All of these tangible things — from the dress she wears, to her gentle heart and her morality, the way she makes love to him, and talks him down when he gets stressed enough to make a poor decision — are not precisely what drives his love for her.

The true driving force of Isbell’s love is more existential, as he sings in the chorus:

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone

Chorus to Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires”.

His love is driven by the knowledge that no matter how things unfold between them, and how much time they get to spend together, someday their relationship will succumb to the effects of time. One of them is going to die first, and leave the other one alone.

This paints a very impactful image of love and the ripple effects of our decisions. In the end, no matter how stable, supportive, and affectionate of a relationship a couple is able to form together, their fate remains the same.

After establishing the existential reality of his love, Isbell then explores the possibilities of a life without death, such as the life of a vampire:

If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
Laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

Second verse to Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires”.

If they didn’t have to worry about death, they would smoke cigarettes together and not concern themselves with health problems. They would watch the other lovers plan out their mortal lives, knowing they had plenty of time. There wouldn’t be such a strong urge for connection between them, such as in the act of reaching for the other’s hand.

This leads him to ponder whether it’s best that time will take us all in the end. Because having that knowledge can be enough to drive you to treat your loved ones with the respect and appreciation that they deserve.

The song ends with two more repetitions of the chorus, really driving that message home.

Listen to “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell below. Make sure you have a box of tissues handy.

See a live version of the song on Austin City Limits TV in early 2018 below. This one also features Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife who inspired the song.

Also check out this May 2023 cover of the song by Noah Kahan, featuring Wesley Schultz of The Lumineers.