Rather than scouring Nashville or L.A. to recruit members for his newest band, the 400 Unit, singer and guitarist Jason Isbell went home. The band's name is even an Alabama reference, name-checking the psychiatric ward of a small-town hospital there. However, the themes of their sophomore album, Here We Rest, are familiar to folks from nearly every state - and walk of life.
Isbell, formerly of alt-country-meets-Southern-rock luminaries Drive-By Truckers, says the best stories often unfold in front of people's eyes, in diners and school buses and their very own homes. That's why he taps into the cadence of Alabamians' speech when he writes lyrics.
"I've always been drawn to people who have a regional voice and people who speak about the things they know the most, which are usually the things in closest proximity to them," the Greenhill, Ala., native told the blog Hear Ya recently. "And I've always been drawn to people who write very conversationally.... Those are the best songs to me, the ones where you could have overheard the lines in a bar or the grocery store."
In other words, he's taken the advice of many creative-writing teachers: "Write what you know." If there's one thing Isbell knows, it's shattered relationships. Here We Rest explores heartbreak from two perspectives - that of the breaker and that of the breakee - and visits many of the places where love goes to die.
But though the tales are gritty and plainspoken, the album's not a collection of pure downers. At times, it's downright whimsical as Isbell explores his characters' hang-ups and tics. "Codeine" takes listeners inside the mind of a bar-crawling bad boy as he gripes about a cover band's lackluster rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand."
Then there's "Tour of Duty," which illuminates a moment of apparent joy that is anything but. As a veteran flashes a smile, Isbell and company reveal the ravages of war that lie beneath.