"Elephant" on Jason Isbell's album Southeastern is a haunting ode to the mental and physical deterioration of cancer patients and their loved ones. Through simple verbiage, Isbell creates a moving image of a couple's last-ditch efforts at having a normal adult life while one partner is dying of the disease. The song most deeply conveys the idea that even while someone fatally ill may be "surrounded by her family" and loving husband, she, like all humans, will ultimately "[die] alone," as the song goes. And as horrifically sad and hopeless the concept, many cancer patients may not escape the fate of becoming captive of their illness.
She said, "Andy, you crack me up"
Seagram's in a coffee cup
Sharecropper eyes, and the hair almost all gone
Through just three lines, Isbell has established the patient's sense of humor even though the effects of chemotherapy are evident to her and her lover. Isbell creates an image for the listener; the observing husband can see she's worn down and knows that she won't be there much longer, likely having spent many hours in her hospital room with a cup of something from the hospital cafeteria trying not to waste any of that precious time. Isbell's poetic metaphor of the woman's eyes as those of sharecroppers holds multiple meanings; sharecropping was a method by which black people freed from slavery could work on white landowners' estates for room and board, essentially maintaining their subordination to white people. In this way, the patient is, no matter how much she may try to deny it, a slave to her condition. In another way, "sharecropper eyes" serves to represent just how much cancer and chemotherapy may strip one of her identity. The song as a whole tries to demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining dignity in such a vulnerable state. This metaphor drives home the idea that a cancer patient may eventually feel dehumanized like slaves did by their owners. Different from slaves or black sharecroppers, the cancer victim suffers a loss of self from the overwhelming attention that becomes required of her health, rather than her relationships and personal happiness.
We burn these joints in effigy
And cry about what we used to be
Try to ignore the elephant somehow
In this part of the chorus, Isbell introduces the main symbol of the song: the elephant. As the old saying goes, something tense or uncomfortable that hangs in the air between two or more people has been coined the "elephant in the room." The song speaks to the idea that it is tempting for people to deny their reality and live as if there were no dismal fate awaiting them, but that this is ultimately unrealistic, especially for a couple in which one or both partners have cancer. In their denial, they may carry on normal behaviors like smoking a joint, which they burn in "effigy," or in angry protest of their situation. They may cling to "what [they] used to be" in order to try and live meaningful, final moments that are not guided by the "elephant" that looms.
I 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
The final verse crystallizes the depressing reality and finality of her diagnosis, and the inevitable end of her life and the relationship. In saying he's "buried her a thousand times," the speaker alludes to the idea that he is no stranger to the concept of her dying, and has in fact figuratively or literally prepared and planned for it more than once. He's even forfeited his "place in line," which is perhaps an ode to the times in which he's been in a public place and had to step out of line to make it to the hospital, or an allusion to the idea that he's given up his spot in line to Heaven so that she can have an easy passing. In any case, Isbell's final declaration that "no one dies with dignity" creates a pit in the audience's stomach and tears brimming in their eyes, as the simple, depressing statement sets in. His song encapsulates each and every listener, puts them in the pained lover's shoes, and leaves them empty at the end. It's a masterful piece of art, and I highly recommend everyone give it a listen, as well as his other music. In the end, we will all have tried to ignore our own share of elephants. What matters is that we choose to live our lives without getting crushed by them.