For Jason Isbell fans who have missed the grit and storytelling acumen the singer-songwriter once brought to Drive-By Truckers, much of his Here We Rest will be as welcome as a long-lost childhood buddy turning up late one night with a cold six-pack. On “Codeine,” a sad-eyed country shuffle about a drugged-out barfly, Isbell sketches out the wreckage scattered throughout a misbegotten romantic relationship with some well-chosen details: There’s the woman with eyes “big as stars, when I saw you behind the bar,” the worried lover who wishes “we knew how to fight but we don’t,” and the bar band fumbling in the background with Hendrix’s “Castles Made Of Sand.” That’s just good, evocative songwriting, and it’s been sorely lacking on Isbell’s previous solo albums, which have mostly trafficked in nondescript, radio-friendly Americana.
There’s some of that on Here We Rest, too, particularly in the album’s petered-out final third. (Though Isbell recovers nicely with the jaunty album-closer “Tour Of Duty,” where a veteran smiles about coming home in order to keep from crying about the war he’s just left.) After failed attempts at becoming a poor man’s Ryan Adams, Isbell has returned to his old role as a poppier Patterson Hood, finding that the DBT-style guitar stomp of “Go It Alone” still suits him, and his vulnerable rasp is an ideal match for the back-porch folk of “Daisy Mae.” Here We Rest doesn’t produce anything on par with “Outfit” or “Decoration Day,” but it’s an encouraging sign that Isbell might still have songs as fine left in him.