The Drive-By Truckers' long shadow continues to fade away on Jason Isbell's third album since his departure from the band. Rest assured, "Here We Rest" retains a strong sense of the South, particularly Alabama, that is a trademark of his old band; however, Isbell has developed his own special sound, which adds healthy doses of twang and soul into the country rock template. He fills this disc with vivid portraits of folks struggling and frequently failing, at life.
The opening track, Alabama Pines, offers a strong example of what Isbell does so well. In a laidback country setting (accented by a lonesome fiddle), he tells a tale filled with sharp details and blue-collar poetry. He provides a concise picture of the narrator's situation when he sings early on: "I can't get to sleep at night/the parking lot's so loud and the a.c. hasn't worked in 20 years." Isbell later closes the tune with some down-and-outer's philosophizing: "No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn out/Liberties that you can not do without/Seem to disappear like ghosts in the air."
After cranking up the guitars on Go It Alone, he strings together an excellent trio of tunes that form the album's core. We've Met is a gentle, heartfelt track that comes the closest to being a hopeful love song here, although he still sings: "my playground fears have faded/replaced with grownup nightmares that come true." The standout Codeine, a funny/sad tale of a dysfunctional relationship, would fit it nicely on a Steve Earle album, and Stopping By holds a cinematic/short story quality of a man returning home after abandoning his family years before.
The album's second half finds him trying out some New Orleans rhythms (Never Could Before) and serving up some sublime country soul (Heart On A String). He ends with the disc with a lively mandolin number Tour of Duty, about a returning soldier finding the joys of his small town life and declaring, "I'm home and I ain't leaving here again."
With this superb set of Southern-set songs, Isbell proves that he has more than enough ability, and songs, to steer his own course as a solo artist.