Based on how gorgeous Here We Rest is, it’s a wonder why Jason Isbell hasn’t become an enormously popular country star with the likes of Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift or even The Zac Brown Band. Here We Rest is troubled and incredibly personal, but this isn’t a Jamey Johnson or Hayes Carll deal where you get some guy twisting country into progressive directions; the former Drive-By Truckers member’s newest album is so elegantly polished, you might want to consider recommending it to your grandmother to make it her album purchase of the year. These are unquestionably pop songs, and they’re performed so wonderfully, it will give you renewed faith in the structure of a song, something that seems to have been eluding me these past few weeks.
Instrumentally, Here We Rest does not surprise. You’ll hear acoustic and slide guitar as well as standup bass and banjo. Isbell has a smoky drawl that seems to sound both weathered and youthful. He employs it to make the arrangements of Here We Rest pleasing and often exemplary. “Never Could Believe” pops with tactile percussion to give the track a rich ensemble flavor. The post-chorus of last and best track, “Tour of Duty”, features a heavenly chord progression that shouldn’t fit within the country setting, but is absolutely heart-wrenching, an excellent coda to the track’s bittersweet subject matter of a soldier returning to civilian life.
But the core of Here We Rest is Isbell, himself. With his personable voice, he can revisit memories and play characters so convincingly, your guess is as good as mine as to which songs belong to which category. The album’s many vocal harmonies are precious, but rarely does Isbell come off as optimistic. From Here We Rest’s onset, he longs to go back to his Alabama hometown through the pines that line the roads. In the first track, he sounds separated from the past that shaped him, and we learn what caused such isolation as Here We Rest progresses. Isbell speaks at length about lost love and drug use, but he covers these topics in ways that incorporate a story. Instead of waxing poetic about a lost love, Isbell decides to pay her a visit. Now, instead of grasping at metaphors, you can feel Isbell’s nostalgia in real time as he catches up with his old flame in the beautiful “Stopping By”. “Darling, I’m not one to judge,” he sings in the bridge of “Codeine” to his lover addicted to the titular drug. “But if I was I’d say you don’t look so good.” It’s a clumsy line, but its imperfection makes the track all the more compelling. His dejection is palpable in the song’s final chorus, when he reinforces for the last time that it is one of his friends that’s feeding his lover’s addiction.
The travails of adulthood pervade every note of Here We Rest, and Isbell conveys them with personal stories of Everyman flair. In an especially poignant expression of weakness, Isbell fears for the future in one of the album’s most touching lines. “All my playground fears have faded,” he sings with trepidation on “We’ve Met”. “Replaced with grown-up nightmares / That have come true.” These are tender accounts from a road to maturity fraught with mistakes, but they’re worded so beautifully, they are instantly forgiven. Chord progression notwithstanding, “Tour of Duty” best accomplishes this, ending Here We Rest with a future as unsure as that of any other character on the album. “I’ve done my tour of duty / Now I’ll try to do what a civilian does,” Isbell sings over tightly strummed guitars and light percussion that convey an air of confidence. It’s a line so simple, it’s silly, but it excellently exemplifies the debilitating culture shock that can demoralize someone that’s been away from their home far too long. It’s a familiar but depressing situation that can ruin the commercial potential of Here We Rest. That is until that chord progression kicks in.