I don’t think many readers will find much controversy in the assertion that things have been hard over the past few years, and 2010 and 2011 were especially hellish in my neck of the woods. So it’s no surprise to find artists focusing on the difficulties they see (and often live themselves). It’s rare, though, to find someone who’s singing about the bad times with as much depth and empathy as we find in Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest, my 2011 CD of the Year.
Andrew Leahey, writing at AMG, explains that this song cycle focuses 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.
I’d expand on this to argue that the album oscillates, in some cases drawing a bright line between dreams and realities and in other cases simply inhabiting a landscape of numb despair. In the lead track, “Alabama Pines,” Isbell finds himself in a cheap hotel room reflecting on the end of a relationship that he didn’t know how to make work.
If we pass through on a Sunday, better make a stop at Wayne’s.
It’s the only open liquor store north, and I can’t stand the pain
of being by myself without a little help
on a Sunday afternoon.
I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline.
I tried to be some ancient kind of man,
one that’s never seen the beauty in the world,
but I tried to chase it down… tried to make the whole thing mine.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard a song about not knowing how to be the man she wants, but Isbell grounds it in such a vivid sense of place that we can almost feel the fact of the failures sticking to our skin long after the last note has faded.
There’s not much that passes for happiness or credible hope on Here We Rest, but what finally broke me down, after seven or eight spins, was sitting with the lyrics and humming along to “Stopping By,” a gut-wrenching number about dropping in to see Dad, unannounced, after 15 years. I’m sure most of us understand how the dysfunctions of one generation all too predictably serve as the only role model the next generation has. If we wonder why a boy grows up unable to connect with a woman – say, the woman in “Alabama Pines” or perhaps “Daisy Mae” – we might have a look at their parents. Add a hint of bygone scandal, the intimation of bile and repression that still characterizes family and community in the Gothic South, and what remains is a moment where little is said, even less is understood. Bear with me as I quote a slightly longer passage:
How did your life turn out? Do you ever think about
a teenage girl in Chattanooga?
You ever tell your folks the truth?
That might’ve been the last of you.
Would’ve been a shame. We hardly knew ya.
Now I’m stopping by. I’m stopping by, Daddy.
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…
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.
A picture on another page. I recognize my eyes have aged.
I’d been alone for quite a while then.
Trying to get a match to burn. Waiting on a latch to turn.
I still have difficulty smiling.
The sins of the father… I guess this song hits me so hard because I recognize too much of it. A lot of us grew up a bit stunted because our dads were only marginally equipped for the world they lived in, and they themselves were far too crippled emotionally and spiritually to provide us with any kind of continuity that might sustain us in a world that seems to change profoundly every 15 minutes. They passed on their brutality in order to make us tough. Their pathological inability to express love or joy engendered in their sons a desperate hope that having no idea what to say would be mistaken for cool. Their transience left us uncertain as to what exactly was meant by the idea of home and an abiding suspicion that there was something suspiciously effeminate about domesticity. Manliness demanded faithlessness, because only in the fleeting sexual attentions of a parade of “strange” could masculinity be validated.
I’m probably projecting more than is healthy, but the genius of Here We Rest is that Isbell tells his stories and the stories of characters he knows in a way that invites the listener to share his/her own experiences. That he gives voice to such crushed affect is one thing. That he is able to do it with such intimacy is quite another.
At some point I should probably mention that Isbell is a superb tunesmith, that the production and arrangements manage both sparsity and complexity in ways that lend resonance and tonal depth to the proceedings, and that in a better world you’d be able to tune into a Country & Western station in your town and hear this disc instead of whatever autotuned bullshit Taylor Swift’s army of cynical Svengalis have cocked up this week. There are moments where he reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Foster and others where I think I hear an echo of Warren Zevon. Praise doesn’t get much higher in this quarter.
Here We Rest is nothing short of brilliant and I’m honored to add it to the list of albums that have topped my Best of lists through the years. I hope you’ll give it a listen. He’s a little sample to see you on your way. First, the official video for “Alabama Pines.”
And a music-only YouTube upload of “Stopping By.”