Here We Rest

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Lightning Rod Records, 2011

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Like most forms of storytelling, songwriting is both an art and a vocation. To reach the highest levels it may help to have some innate talent, but more than anything it takes practice and focus, the willingness to open yourself up, and the determination to keep honing your skills day by day, song by song.

Further evidence of all of the above showed up in my CD player (yep, physical music that actually rewards the artist for their work) recently in the form of Jason Isbell’s 2011 album Here We Rest. If we were representing the ascendancy of Isbell as one of his generation’s greatest songwriters on a graph, this album would reside somewhere around the halfway mark of the steadily rising line. While his first two solo albums after leaving the Drive-By Truckers, 2007’s Sirens of The Ditch and 2009’s self-titled, contain a number of solid tunes, by the time of Here We Rest, he’d clearly leveled up his songwriting chops to a higher standard.

The principal highlights of this set are three. Kickoff track “Alabama Pines” sets a memorable scene to a loping country-rock beat, a detailed roadmap of Isbell’s home turf that paints a picture full of both longing and damning self-knowledge: “If you pass through on a Sunday, better make a stop in Wayne / It’s the only liquor store open north and I can’t stand the pain / Of bein’ by myself without a little help on a Sunday afternoon… Somebody take me home through those Alabama pines.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Soon after, the acoustic-but-densely-arranged “Codeine” offers up a dark story-song wrapped around an indelible hook. “If there’s one thing I can’t take / It’s the sound that a woman makes / About five seconds after her heart begins to break,” he sings as guest fiddler/harmony vocalist (and future wife) Amanda Shires lights up an otherwise rather shambling back-porch jam.

Speaking of shambling, the roadhouse boogie shuffle “Never Could Believe” does it in style as the entire 400 Unit—Chad Gamble (drums), Derry DeBorja (keys and accordion), Browan Lollar (guitar) and Jimbo Hart (bass)—throws a party behind the boss. In this particular case, the lyric is nothing special, but the music is a blast.

In between and all around, Isbell dips his musical toes in heavy blues-rock (“Go It Alone”), upbeat country rock (“Stopping By”) and a pair of serious-minded ballads (“We’ve Met” and “Daisy Mae”). Toward the end, he delves deeper into the blues with the r&b flavored “Heart On A String” and the subtly gospel-influenced “Save It For Sunday.” Neither is outstanding, but both offer cool examples of Isbell stretching out his core Americana sound in interesting ways. “Tour Of Duty” wraps things up with a lilting acoustic jam supporting a rather melancholy story-song.

For all the evidence of improvement, this album is today mostly a stepping-stone in Isbell’s catalog, an album full of stories about others that barely touches on the kind of lacerating self-reflection that made his 2013 breakthrough Southeastern and its successors so remarkable. On Here We Rest he’s still looking outward, describing the world around him and the foibles of others; he hasn’t yet blossomed into the epic confessional songwriter he is today. Still, he’s begun to polish his songs like stones, creating moments and characters that are growing deeper and richer, more resonant and multifaceted, verse by artful verse.

Rating: B

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