Up until now I considered that Jason Isbell’s solo career hadn’t lived up to the promise he’d shown as a member of the Drive-By Truckers (for reasons I’ve laid out earlier). “Here We Rest” is where Jason Isbell starts to get into his stride. It’s not perfection but contains some great songs within. We add some more pieces to the 400 Unit too as Jimbo and Derry are joined by drummer Chad Gamble and Amanda Shires on Fiddle and backing vocals. Not far to go before the 400 Unit as we know it today is in place.
Right from the off “Alabama Pines” sets the standard. A simple tale of someone who has moved away from where he was bought up and dreams of being back home. Isbell has said it’s not necessarily the place that is important to get back to but “home” could be a place in your life when things were different/better. The song itself is a gentle country strum and was named “Song of the Year” at the 2012 Americana Music Awards, so the rest of the album had something to live up to.
Isbell serves up songs focussed on the people of the struggling South, tales of ordinary people. “Stopping By” is about a child trying to find their estranged father; “Tour Of Duty” is a companion song to “Dress Blues” from “Sirens Of the Ditch”, Isbell has said of it “When you’re in a small town, there’s a higher percentage of people that fight overseas…I try to write about the effect the war is having on the homefront or on individuals. I do know something about that.”.
“Go It Alone” breaks out the big fat Southern guitars, “We’ve Met” and “Daisy Mae”, a beautiful song on the subject of child abuse (!), all point toward where Jason Isbell is headed. “Codeine” is a bouncy upbeat song with a jaunty, barroom country feel and some lively fiddle from Ms Shires, it’s about addiction ! Codeine is a prescription painkiller, at times used to wean Heroin addicts off their drug of choice but which is itself highly addictive. In the song Isbell’s girlfriend is strung out and “One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine”. Isbell writes about addiction often, he was himself an addict, and this is as strangely upbeat a song about addiction as you’re ever likely to hear.
“Never Could Believe” and the cover of George Jackson’s “Heart On A String” I could happily live without and the penultimate “Save It For Sunday” is a gentle piano led ballad to end on.
The songs are starting to come, Isbell is still finding his voice as a singer and as a writer. The 400 Unit are beginning to come together around him and I think they play an important role in Isbell’s future ability to express his thoughts in song. “Here We Rest” isn’t quite there, but it’s closer than he’s gotten up to now.