Sometimes records come along and they just creep in and grow on you. But even the ones that grow on you can still be familiar upon first meeting, like that person you meet who you just connect with on some level like you knew them before, or whatever it is that some folks refer to as a good vibe. Or like a creaky floor that’s just always sounded that way and for some reason it’s a subconscious comfort of sorts.
And then in walks Jason Isbell’s latest album Here We Rest. It’s instantly likeable and the kind of record that sounds as good on Sunday morning as it did on Saturday night. It’s dense with real life, not unlike a film. There’s a perfect mix of heartbreak and promise; of love and pain, of dreams and regrets.
The sound of Isbell and his fine band, the 400 Unit, is also perfectly mixed. There’s a clarity and separation that allows each guitar and organ part to seep out without calling too much attention to itself. The different sounds used (acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, slide guitar, pianos and organs) are tasteful and always right on, and there’s “layers” without having 17 overdubs of extra guitars needlessly doubling parts.
Isbell’s coffee-stained vocal delivery is warm and sweet; a southern drawl meets blue-eyed soul that he honed when first winning us over as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. On some of DBT’s finest albums, Isbell’s songs (especially “Outfit,” “Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel,” “Goddamn Lonely Love”) were among the highlights, if not the centerpieces. No surprise that his first two solo albums were solid (but overlooked) gems. And this latest one is proving to be his finest, rewarding repeated listens with subtle nuances. Certain lyric lines just hit you, sometimes for their meaning and other times for Isbell’s phrasing; or both, when he turns a phrase like “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about.”
Here We Rest is named after the former state motto of Alabama. And more than ever, the songs sound locally grown, and Jason Isbell comes off like someone you’d describe as “grounded.” While still just 32, he’s spent many years on the touring road, and sounds like a weary rock warrior who finally took the time to soak up what was trickling down in his hometown and ended up penning a real State of the Union as far as how people are actually living and trying to get by.
As much as it can and should be considered one of the years’ best “alt-country” or “Americana” albums, it’s really a quilt of many cloths. The first half is textbook-but-textured folk rock that always hits the mark; its simplicity effective, never boring. On side 2, his front-porch ditties tap their toes next to a swampy New Orleans vamp like “Never Could Believe” and the R&B soul of “Heart on a String.”
It doesn’t go out with a whimper, either; the last two tracks (“Save it for Sunday” and “Tour of Duty”) further showcase his considerable writing talents. The soldier in “Tour of Duty” is “eating like I’m out on bail,” and everything feels like home, one of those comfortable parties that just happen out of nowhere. It wasn’t a planned party or anything, but here we all are having a good time. The mandolin-driven train-chugging beat is dancing down the tracks and then it’s gone. And the album is over and things suddenly feel really quiet. Except for that old creak in the floor.