It doesn’t take much musical foresight to predict this: Lots of best-CDs-of 2011 lists are going to include Jason Isbell’s new one, Here We Rest.
Isbell, a former Drive-By Trucker, spans multiple genres to the point where his music can’t be pigeonholed: a little country, a little rock, a touch of bluegrass, a touch of blues. He and his band, The 400 Unit, carry it off with effortless flair, the variety latching onto listeners’ left ears.
Their right ears? They’re glued to the lyrics. Isbell’s storytelling is easily equal to that of John Hiatt or Lyle Lovett. He sings of women, childhood, failure, fear and love—often in the same song. Twinges of sadness, resignation and regret combine to wash the emotions in a universal hue, something everyone has seen and felt.
Isbell bolted out of the gate in fine form for his first solo effort, Sirens of the Ditch (2007), and then avoided the second album blues with a self-titled second CD. But Here We Rest, his third album (released a month ago) will have listeners giving serious consideration to rating it 10 out of 10. It’s that good.
It opens with a solo acoustic guitar and a singer wondering where he went wrong:
I moved into this room,
If you could call it that, a week ago.
I never do what I’m supposed to do.
I hardly even know my name anymore.
When no one calls it out,
It kinda vanishes away.
The sense of puzzlement about life and the loss of love bubbles throughout the album. As might be expected, Isbell has been with women who have done him wrong. But he has done wrong to women, too, as his description of his room continues:
The a/c hasn’t worked in twenty years.
Probably never made a single person cold,
But I can’t say the same for me.
I’ve done it many times.
The song “Codeine” will turn into an earworm as soon as you hear the fiddle—not violin—that kicks it off and carries it along on a moonshiny wave. Isbell gives Jimi Hendrix a nod in the opening verse, as he winces while a cover band is “Tryin’ to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand,’” from Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love. “Codeine” is another song about loss, with a chemical twist:
She should be home by now but she ain’t.
I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t [because]
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine.
That’s the most infectious, contagious refrain you’re going to hear this year.
“Daisy Mae” is one of the three high points of the album: an acoustic guitar and a song about a woman whose eyes “remind me of a scared and simple doe before she runs.” Like the song’s lost storyteller, Daisy Mae is a shattered survivor:
Here, he never touched you.
Inside this house he never called your name.
So stay where I can see you, girl.
We both know the outside world
Has changed and it will never be the same.
The second high point is a song about a different kind of loss—that of a father who walks out on his family. Isbell sings as a son who has carried emptiness with him since long ago, when he was young, with a child’s innocent intuition that something isn’t right:
Looking through a picture book.
There’s one I think my momma took.
You couldn’t have been much over twenty.
Shirtless in your cutoff jeans,
You hand a lollipop to me.
I probably asked where you got the money.
Still, Isbell stops by to see his father in Atlanta and reflects on life without him:
I think the best of me’s still standing in the doorway,
Counting cars and counting days and counting years.
I could say you made me go through life the hard way,
But it might’ve been worse if you were here.
But Isbell is not simply a storyteller. He knows how to lean back and deliver a rock ‘n’ roll, electric guitar cruncher: “Go It Alone” is a song Tom Petty probably wishes he had written. Mix rockers with the rollicking “Never Could Believe,” about a woman who only spoke the truth “rolling in the big old bed”; or the bouncy prisoner-of-love “Heart on a String”; or the toe-tapping “Tour of Duty,” a soft yet lethal collision between a breezy front porch pickin’ song and the uneasy tale of a veteran returning home, and the result is an album that grabs both of your ears first time through and then demands to take up permanent residence at the top of your playlist.
Categories: Music/Popular Culture