Jay Farrar’s work has carried a political tone to it from the very beginning. Working class depictions run constant through Uncle Tupelo’s albums and most of Son Volt’s catalogue as well. A bit of something changed though with Son Volt’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot in 2005. The George W. Bush administration seemed to have put something extra into Farrar’s craw, and that album, whose title was a reference to the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, would lob a number of well-crafted barbs that veered more into topical themes. Farrar even ventured into the realm of Guthrie more explicitly with 2012’s New Multitudes, a collection of Guthrie lyrics with music written by Farrar and others. So when Son Volt’s new album Union was announced as “confronting our current political climate,” it was clearly something to get a bit excited about.
Farrar’s strength as a lyricist often lies in his precise way of putting words together. His work has always been similar to an abstract painter, using imagery and the sounds of words as much as the meanings themselves to create moods across the rustic rock soundscapes of Son Volt’s music. He’s at his best on Union when he’s able to harness that tendency to create a depiction of the aforementioned “political climate.” “While Rome Burns” starts off the album with just such a depiction. “The interstates connect more than divide / free will can only survive,” he lays out in the chorus, laying out a sense of hopefulness. “Time to face the music / time to make the fur fly.” The excellent “Broadsides” pulls a similar note, using a title word that could denote either cannon fire or editorials. “Broadsides will be hurled / that capture the truth,” Farrar almost moans over the thick blues stomp that makes up the bed of the song.
Son Volt :: While Rome Burns
There are times where the lyrics edge over into more obvious statements, and in those moments the imagery isn’t quite as sharp. “Reality Winner,” a song about the Air Force intelligence specialist who leaked information about Russian interference in the 2016 election, is a ripe topic for a song. Winner’s story is as intriguing as the ones of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, but the ballad’s tale falls a bit flat. Similarly “The 99” leans too hard on the oft-used phrasing denoting the wealth divide in America. “Ninety-nine percent / It’s a trickle-down world / like you’re stuck in cement” feels clunky in Farrar’s voice.
One of the best ingredients of this version of Son Volt is how much it hearkens back in spots to some of Farrar’s solo album Terroir Blues. Undoubtedly that has a lot to do with Mark Spencer who played a huge part musically on that album and is also now a full-time member of Son Volt. But this is also the same Son Volt that has now put out more albums than the original lineup did, so there is plenty of music here that sounds like their 2009 album American Central Dust and also some that sounds like a continuation of 2017’s Notes of Blue. But the music stays fairly consistent, which is both Son Volt’s blessing and burden.
The album as a whole though finds Farrar connecting, even in other places where he shifts into more direct songwriting. The title track lays out a lot of the divides within the country (“city versus country / rural versus urban / red versus blue”) and repeats the chorus of “he said National Service will keep the Union together,” a seeming call back to to past cultural unifiers like the Alphabet Agencies during the New Deal. Closer “The Symbol” writes from the perspective of an undocumented immigrant who has been in the U.S. since coming to work in New Orleans post-Katrina, even pointing out, as he bemoans the deported fates of some of his friends, that his children were “born, born in the U.S.A.” Farrar delivers that line in his own phrasing and tone, but there’s no way that he didn’t intend it as an oblique reference to Springsteen’s own story of what that wording means. 35 years on, you don’t choose that line for random reasons, and here Farrar intends it, and the album, to be a broadside that connects. words / j neas