Release Date: Apr 12, 2011
Record label: Lightning Rod Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Like the two albums before it, Here We Rest shines a light on Jason Isbell’s softer side, illuminating the sad-faced country tunes and bluesy ballads that rarely popped up during his time with Drive-By Truckers. Written in northern Alabama during a break in Isbell’s touring schedule, these songs focus on the archetypal characters that populate most struggling Southern towns: the barflies and ball players, the heartbreakers and the heartbroken, the war vets who return home and the starry-eyed kids who leave. Isbell’s hometown was hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008, and he captures his subjects somewhere between the realization that their lives have been impacted and the sad resignation that they’ve been irrevocably changed.
It's a hard truth, but so far Jason Isbell's solo career hasn't lived up to the promise he showed during his short tenure with Drive-By Truckers. When he left the group in 2007, he had held his own in a group full of top-shelf rock songwriters, displaying a flair for quiet drama and telling details. Out of the gate he started strong on Decoration Day in 2003 and owned The Dirty South the next year; "Outfit" may be his most quoted song, but "Danko/Manuel", ostensibly about the tragic Band members, was a better mission statement about saving a bit of yourself away from the gigs.
My friend Ryan, who also pays attention to this kind of thing, said that Jason Isbell could always be counted upon to deliver two to four classic songs per album. As it happens, this is true regardless of how many songs he ends up releasing. It used to be that Isbell was in a full band with a few other noted songwriters; two to four good ones were all we needed.
My gut reaction was simply to post three paragraphs’ worth of profanity in lieu of a proper album review for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest, since it’s yet another highly anticipated 2011 release to land with a resounding thud. Setting aside the disappointment that Isbell’s follow-up to the under-appreciated, soulful Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is more or less a colossal bore, it’s at least a start to say that it isn’t quite as poor as his former bandmates’s latest, the Drive-By Truckers’s Go-Go Boots. But to damn Isbell with faint praise is still a shame.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest is not what you’d call easy listening. No, one could hardly describe the stories Isbell conveys in these 11 songs, the sad imagery of down-and-out characters living disappointing lives, as uplifting. Yet, while it may not be filled with sunshine daydreams (though there is some walking in the tall trees), “Here We Rest” still makes for incredibly pleasing listening.
Jason Isbell spent a good deal of 2010 at home in northern Alabama, and Here We Rest reflects that in its stories of the folks of Muscle Shoals and Florence affected by the economic downturn. The guitarist's always been good at such character studies, but perhaps because he really understands the predicament his characters find themselves in, his new tunes really shine. He's become a rocker with a sensitive streak, but here he branches out into country soul, with the Tony Joe White swagger of "Heart on a String," and also into bluegrass, with the mandolin-driven "Tour of Duty." These touches are different from his past work, and there are many more throughout, but it's all equally affecting.