The world is growing smaller and with the flow of information via the internet today one can feel like you have more in common with someone on the other side of the world than your neighbor, and while there are many positive things about this there’s also a downside. It leads to a sort of restlessness and detachment; the loss of you own local identity, and this is as common in music as anywhere else. This is not the case with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest though; it is remarkable precisely because it is an album deeply rooted in Isbell’s native American south and its traditions.
Here We Rest is Isbell’s third album since leaving the Drive-By Truckers in 2007 and his second with The 400 Unit as his band, and it is his first fully realized album. Isbell and the band seem to feel fully comfortable with themselves and their sound for the first time. While his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch contained a couple of great songs it felt like a collection of songs rather than an album, and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s self-titled record from 2009 suffered from an uncertain musical direction. With Here We Rest these problems are washed away; it is a self-assured record with a defined sound and vision.
Musically, most of Here We Rest finds Isbell settling into singer-songwriter territory. One suspects that it was Isbell’s touring and recording with Justin Townes Earle last year that influenced the band’s move from the harder rock edge that permeated much of Isbell’s work with the Drive-By Truckers and large parts of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit to a solid country-influenced rock, often sprinkled with a heavy southern soul influence, and the album is all the better for it.
As if to assure the listener that there is no uncertainty about who or what he is, Isbell opens the album with what might be its strongest track (although there are several contenders) “Alabama Pines,” a beautiful track concerning the fear of losing your identity and the longing for home. Both “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine” are among the very best songs he has written and shows Isbell realizing his own style here and now. The almost as strong “Go It Alone” is more closely connected to his past in the Drive-By Truckers both musically and lyrically, dealing as it does with the pressures of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and its consequences.
All through the album there is a comfortably laid back southern vibe to the music which fits perfectly with Isbell’s often very personal stories of the basic human emotions and experiences; love, longing, losing etc. The laid back vibe is in some way the album’s biggest flaw too, because while the songs are good, the vibe of the album becomes too easygoing and unremarkable at times during the second half of the album.
The individual and collective musical performances throughout the album are very strong, which tells you just how good Isbell’s writing and singing are because while the playing is enjoyable, it is Isbell’s songs and the way he sings them that are the main attraction of this album. The lyrics are honest, direct and heartfelt and, as Isbell sings them, one gets the feeling that he cares about the characters in his songs and can identify with them and their situations. The personal connection between Isbell and his songs translates to a strong emotional connection between the performer, the songs and the listener; a rare and special experience reminiscent of the way many fans respond and relate to masters such as Bruce Springsteen.
Jason Isbell is almost ten years into his career and he is still one of the most underappreciated songwriters and unfairly unknown artists in the music business today. Here We Rest finds Isbell coming into his own as a performer and album recording artist, adding to his already significant accomplishments as a songwriter. The album is his most consistent and complete, finding room for singer-songwriter-type country, alt. country, harder rock and soul within a single record, while retaining a sense of direction and cohesiveness, as well as heart, soul and a satisfying emotional connection between artist and audience .
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