Jason Isbell's most recent album, Here We Rest, opens with a perfect song. It's so quietly beguiling that a listener could almost be forgiven for taking a while to move on to the rest of the record. (But please do, otherwise you'd miss the lilting, haunting closer "Tour of Duty," and that would be a real shame.) But on a very strong album, the erstwhile Drive-By Truckers guitarist/singer-songwriter never quite reaches the heights of that transcendent opening shot, "Alabama Pines."
Isbell has put out his last two efforts under the banner of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but this week he'll be playing a solo show at the historic Franklin Theater — just Isbell and his guitar. "Most of [my songs] start out with just an acoustic guitar — and sometimes I write on piano," says Isbell, chatting with the Scene by phone. "Most of the time when I'm actually deciding in my head whether it's a good song or not, I'm just sitting in my living room playing it on guitar. So if it holds up like that, it'll hold up in this room too."
Some of his more delicate ballads will no doubt benefit from a hushed atmosphere, but this is also a chance to strip away the full band from the raucous ones and let the bones of his songwriting show. "The only thing I focus on is trying to play as though I'm playing to a small group of people in a small room," explains Isbell. "I don't want to get up there and yell and bang on the guitar as hard as I can because that's just not fun for me. And a lot of people end up playing solo shows where they have to do that. I like shows like this where they're geared towards listening and paying attention, and it's not just a social event."
One song is sure to sound great in that room. Because it's perfect. "Alabama Pines."
OK, OK, so what makes this song so special? "Alabama Pines" is no satirical gem or conceptual feat. It's unassuming. Casual. Meandering. And so goddamn wistful. It's that gorgeous late-afternoon nonchalance that really slays.
The song builds from a bracingly simple acoustic strum into a nuanced portrait of alienation and loneliness. Isbell's singing is never flashy, but it's always emotive. He opens, "I moved into this room, if you could call it that, a week ago / I never do what I'm supposed to do / I hardly even know my name anymore / When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away."
Isbell has always been able to devastate with details (the forsaken green Mustang in "Outfit," a smell of burning tires in "Day John Henry Died," scripture on grocery store signs glimpsed in "Dress Blues"), and "Alabama Pines" is no exception. The protagonist is revealed in fits and starts — clues hidden in habitual Sunday liquor runs (he knows the only open place by name) and the motel's broken air conditioner ("Probably never made a single person cold, but I can't say the same for me").
Musically, the magic happens in a moment of restraint. For the opening of the last verse, he returns to that solo strum — this time slightly echoed by the quiet hum of organ and fiddle. Isbell is asking us to pay attention as he resurrects that initial lyrical construction: "I've been stuck here in this town, if you could call it that, a year or two / I never do what I'm supposed to do / I don't even need a name anymore / When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away."
Yup, "Alabama Pines" will probably hold up in that room.
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