Jason Isbell has more soul than the next three alternative country singers put together. The grit of southern rhythm and blues has permeated his sound since his days in Drive-by Truckers, and it shines more brightly than ever on Here We Rest, his third album since leaving DBTs (and second with the 400 Unit).
Gone are most of the southern rock trappings, replaced almost entirely by easy country soul and R&B. That’s not to say he’s given up on the dark tales of n’er do wells, merely that their presentation is a little softer and more implicit. Isbell finally sounds entirely comfortable in his skin and as the main attraction, putting his baby-faced drawl to perfect use on this collection of stirring tunes.
“Codeine” is the central touchstone of Here We Rest. It’s a hazy regret of an ex-lover moved on to somebody with better drugs. Bluesy and meandering, the lyrics convey a relationship falling apart in addled stupor rather than in anger. “I wish we knew how to fight but we don’t” is all too telling of the lack of communication in their befuddled affair. The shuffling country beat and fiddle fills would bely the subject matter if not for the subtly rendered brushstrokes that reveal the story.
“Heart on a String” sounds like something Bonnie Raitt forgot to record. It’s a gem of a barroom soul song, just begging for a little late night boozy dancing in a smoky dive somewhere in northern Alabama.
Elsewhere, “Stopping By” visits a father who cut and run early–Isbell shades in the background story with gently sympathetic detail, granting at least acknowledgement, if not apology, to the absentee dad. “Think the best of me still standing in the doorway” he sings of days gone by and the present.
As he did on Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Isbell explores the complexities of the life–both inner and outer–of a returning soldier in “Tour of Duty.” This time he gives us the shinier side of the coin, and it’s a cautiously optimistic portrayal of a military man ready to get back to living his American dream.
Here We Rest is a gratifyingly insightful and sensitive collection, but what’s hard to fathom is that Isbell has found a way to sound strikingly more robust and full of purpose while dialing back the attitude and harder edges of his earlier work. He’s an artist on the rise who has grown into his own dusty steel-toes, and revealed that as an engrossing place to be.