John Metzger's #3 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2007, Volume 14, #2
Written by John Metzger
In the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s demise, Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn regrouped to form Son Volt, and Trace, the band’s debut, quickly assumed iconic status within the No Depression scene. The ensemble’s subsequent affairs, however, lacked focus and inspiration, and as critics and fans alike turned their attention elsewhere, Farrar increasingly exuded an air of desperation in his attempts to find a way out of what rapidly was becoming an all-too-familiar routine. Closing the book on Son Volt in order to pursue a solo career freed Farrar to tinker with his sound, and although his experiments weren’t always successful, they did permit him to regain his footing and rediscover his muse. While Son Volt’s reformulation in 2005 for the release of Okemah and the Melody of Riot initially might have looked like a rash decision that was designed to spur interest in Farrar’s work — especially considering that he was the only original member of the outfit to participate in the project and hence could have issued the set under his own name — its back-to-basics architecture, which musically stripped away his sonic indulgences and lyrically re-embraced the Woody Guthrie-inspired, socio-political musings of Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992, effectively felt like a new beginning.
It’s upon this foundation that Son Volt’s fifth studio effort The Search is constructed, and although Farrar’s fans likely will balk at the suggestion, it is, quite frankly, the best album with which he ever has been associated. Part of the reason why this particular foray is so successful is the wide-ranging appeal of the collection’s music. Rather than remaining entrenched within the folk, country, and blues refrains that typically have defined Son Volt’s work, Farrar opted instead to dress them up in a kaleidoscopic array of colors. By intertwining his personal journey with that of the nation at large, Farrar is better able to speak for — and to — the inhabitants of middle America. His thematic, emotional touchstones — directionless wandering, troubled times, crushed spirits, and a general sense of isolation — have changed little over the years, but spurred by the current state of the world, his urgency has returned with a vengeance.
As always, Farrar’s message is, at first, somewhat cryptic, but the manner in which his clever wordplay collides with his music, time and again throughout The Search, allows key lyrical phrases to bubble to the surface. Once there, they begin to resonate, and as the various components of his compositions bounce off each other, they congeal into a grander, bolder statement. Within the Neil Young-ian chug of Circadian Rhythm, for example, he attempts to wake the general populace from its sleep by pleading, "I can’t stand any more indecision." Elsewhere, in Beacon Soul, Farrar asks, "Who the hell is Dow Jones anyway?" Later, his anger erupts in the full-scale fury of Automatic Society as he rants about "planned obsolescence" and being "manufactured senseless." Likewise, fragments such as "when war is profit and profit is war" and "internal combustion burning clean" — which respectively are tucked inside the Memphis soul swagger of The Picture and the crunchy rock of the title track — further reinforce the meaning behind opening cut Slow Hearse, a song that powerfully transforms The Beatles’ Golden Slumbers into a somber memorial for the troops who have died in Iraq.
For certain, The Search could have been a dreary, bleak, and claustrophobic experience, but the music with which Farrar has surrounded his words is, at times, so jubilant and alive that it exudes an air of defiance. Even during the addict’s tale Methamphetamine, which is by far the set’s darkest moment, there exists a certain empathetic beauty that is unshakeable. It’s as if Farrar is determined not to let the world wear him down to the point where he becomes lost within a stupor of inaction and paralysis. On Underground Dream, he refuses, amidst his sorrow over wiretaps and broken hearts, to give up on his hope for the future, and he shrugs off the Beach Boys-infused melancholia of Adrenaline and Heresy in order to offer the sun-dappled promise of a brand-new day. "It can only get better from here. Don’t have any fear," he sings on the concluding Phosphate Skin, as the music assumes a swirling, Pink Floyd-ian consistency. Where Roger Waters, however, had a tendency to strike a mockingly condescending tone, Farrar reaches out his hand and offers companionship to a nation that is desperately searching for a way out of its gloomy existence. Powerfully moving without ever resorting to heavy-handed cliché, The Search is the masterpiece that Farrar’s fans long suspected he could write. ½
Of Further Interest...
The Search is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box