Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Here We Rest

January 01, 1970

(Lightning
Rod)

 

www.lightningrodrecords.com

 

Up on my
wall is a Jason Isbell poster from a brief acoustic tour he did in support of
his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch, released
in the summer of 2007 a few months after his split from the Drive-By Truckers.
Right under the autograph he inscribed for my kid the poster reads “acclaimed
songwriter and guitarist formerly of the Drive-By Truckers.” That got me to
thinking recently, while I was playing his third post-DBTs album: once an
artist enters a new, clearly defined phase, for how long should the artist
expect his or her former life to shadow (and in some instances, overshadow) the
subsequent one? It’s a fair question, and a sometimes vexing one that scores of
musicians have faced over the years. With Here
We Rest
, the product of a couple of years’ worth of steady touring from
Isbell and his band the 400 Unit behind their self-titled 2008 release, the
answer can be found in the songs and the sonics.

 

The combo
– Isbell, guitarist Browan Lollar, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble,
keyboardist Derry deBorja – eases into the 11-song record like a group easing
into a live set via the gentle country-folk of “Alabama Pines” which, with its
musical overtones of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and a storyline about
a lost soul desperate to reconnect with humanity, and with himself (“I don’t
even need a name anymore,” sings Isbell). The fireworks, literal and subliminal,
start going off soon after. “Go It Alone,” about another person who finds
himself at a personal crossroads, is served up on bed of anthemic Stones and
Petty, while the reflective, seen-through-another’s-eyes “Stopping By,” is
luminous with piano and jangly guitar and a sweetly-wrought bridge, not to
mention containing one of Isbell’s most memorable lines ever (“I think the best
of me is still standing in the doorway”). The band takes a trip down to New
Orleans with the rollicking, percussive, Little Feat-esque “Never Could Believe,”
then slips back into Muscle Shoals under the cover of darkness with a smoky,
deeply soulful cover of the Candi Staton nugget “Heart On A String,” originally
recorded by Staton at Muscle Shoals way back in 1970 and here rendered as a
deeply soulful duet between Isbell and Georgia songbird Abby Owens. Somewhere
along the way they find time to detour through Appalachia
for the bluegrass-flavored “Tour of Duty,” about a returning soldier painfully
aware that he’s damaged goods no matter how chipper a face he puts on. (Isbell
clearly has deep empathy for our military personnel, having dipped into related
thematic waters on “Dress Blues,” from Sirens,
and 400 Unit’sSoldiers Get Strange.”)

 

Yet the
album’s clear standout is also its most left-field number, a deceptively upbeat
ditty whose tuneful, fiddle-powered (courtesy Amanda Shires, who also
contributes harmony vocals) arrangement contrasts with a markedly darker, part-cautionary
story line: the protagonist of “Codeine” sits at home, waiting for his woman,
but she ain’t coming home tonight because, as the singalong-style chorus
advises, “one of my friends has taken her in/ and feeding her codeine.” That
“Codeine” is undoubtedly destined to become both a conversation piece and a
concert crowd pleaser is testimony to Isbell’s ability to keep several lyrical
balls in the air at once – amid the heartache, the song also has some funny,
self-deprecating asides (think of the classic image of the clown who is
laughing on the outside while crying on the inside) – even as his band is
matching him mood-for-mood.

 

As Here We Rest – a phrase borrowed,
incidentally but not insignificantly, from Alabama’s original state motto,
which was adopted shortly after the Civil War ended – unfolds, it’s hard not to
think of an earlier, equally complex meditation on how people feel and act when
they find themselves at the ends of their ropes during troubled or desperate
times – Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness At
the Edge of Town
. This is not to overstate the case by saddling Isbell with
the fatal “young Springsteen tag” (much as The Boss himself was hyped, early in
his career, as yet another “young Dylan”); despite certain key age/resume
similarities between the two men at their respective stages of development, the
2011 musical milieu remains vastly different from that of 1978.

 

But
still…

 

The
Isbell record is, in a word (or several), a huge artistic achievement, and on
multiple levels: the lyrics are evocative, emotional, and multifaceted; the
music itself, deftly arranged, in archetypal tight-but-loose fashion; and the
whole thing resonates and lingers in the mind long after the disc has spun.
You’ll want to play it over and over and over, as I have. Hell, it ain’t even a
“new phase” for Isbell – he already made his leap of faith awhile back. Time for the rest of y’all to come around to that
fact.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Codeine,” “Stopping By,” “Heart
On a String,” Go It Alone” FRED MILLS

 

Go here to read BLURT editor Fred
Mills’ recent interview with Jason Isbell, who talks about the new album, about
what inspires him as a songwriter, and even a bit on his relationship with his
erstwhile bandmates in the Drive-By Truckers. See also the latest print issue
of this magazine for more Isbell.

 

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