[10 April 2011]
My friend Ryan, who also pays attention to this kind of thing, said that Jason Isbell could always be counted upon to deliver two to four classic songs per album. As it happens, this is true regardless of how many songs he ends up releasing. It used to be that Isbell was in a full band with a few other noted songwriters; two to four good ones were all we needed. On his own, it gets a little tougher to come up with 45-minutes of sustained brilliance.
“Alabama Pines”, “Go It Alone”, and “Stopping By” are the keepers on Here We Rest. Do you have iTunes? Good. Go find these. “Alabama Pines” may be the most overtly country tune Isbell has recorded. It’s a tale of heartbreak and isolation set to a heaven-sent melody. Then the fiddles come in and all is right with the world. “Go It Alone” is a brooding, minor key rocker with a killer groove and a huge, redemptive chorus—in short, everything you might hope for in a Jason Isbell rocker. “Stopping By” has a gorgeous cascading riff and yearning, uncertain harmonies that perfectly match its lyrics about a tentative reconciliation between estranged family members.
Then there are the other ones. Understand that Jason Isbell is far too talented a songwriter to put out a song with no redeeming value, and many of these songs have moments of genuine inspiration. Take, for example, “We’ve Met”—it’s got a cool part where the melody starts falling on the offbeat, and boasts at least one stellar couplet in “We thought we’d find the answers / In the troubadours and dancers.” In an ideal world, though, he would have married these elements to a more memorable verse; as it is, these are fleeting moments in a relatively unremarkable stretch of acoustic guitars and tasteful Fender Rhodes embellishments.
“Codeine” also inspires wishes for what might have been. Its opening image of a crappy bar band struggling through Hendrix covers comes from the same well of brilliant detail that gave us that 302 Mach One in green, and its chorus (“One of my friends has taken her in / And given her codeine”) is both surprising and addictively melodic. Too bad later verses lapse into cheesy talk-singing, which gives the listener plenty of time to reflect on how the two parts of the song actually have nothing to do with each other.
Later, “Never Could Believe” and “Heart on a String” find the 400 Unit lapsing into sincere but uninspired genre exercises (New Orleans-style blues and country soul, respectively—two styles that need to sound effortless to work, and don’t here). The album closes with “Tour of Duty”, which benefits from its stripped-down, mandolin-based arrangement, but by now the damage has been done, and Isbell doesn’t do himself any favors by returning to the subject of soldiers returning home in varying states of disrepair. It’s clearly a topic that matters to him, and one with great artistic potential, but Isbell mined this territory pretty comprehensively in “Dress Blues” and “Soldiers Get Strange” on his last two records. It can’t help but suffer from the comparison, and coming after a fallow stretch does little to increase the listener’s sympathy or patience.
I feel meaner than I want to be. It’s not a bad album. There are enough good moments on this record (and, as I noted above, a few good songs) to believe that Isbell is still in full command of his considerable talents; it’s just that he seems to be spreading himself too thin. There’s a 30-second instrumental here called “The Ballad of Nobeard”—if that doesn’t betray a need to fill up time, it’s hard to imagine what would. Maybe he needs a year off or a collaborator, hard to say. It’s easy to believe that Isbell has a classic record in him, even if this isn’t it. One day, firing on all cylinders, he could make people forget what band he used to be in and focus on this one.