“We’ll know when we get there/If we find mercy,” Jay Farrar sings in “The Picture”, the second track on The Search, Son Volt’s fifth album. If in fact the record’s title is a clue as to its journey, that lyric suggests an answer as to what Farrar seems to be seeking.
The Search is a turbulent record, both topically and sonically. As on 2005′s Okemah & The Melody Of Riot (and also the two Farrar solo records that preceded it, 2001′s Sebastopol and 2003′s Terroir Blues), a troubled heart about the state of the world weighs heavily over the proceedings. Though Farrar rarely addresses issues in an anthemic manner, he touches upon foreign, domestic and societal issues in his generally oblique observations, set to melodies and rhythms that are alternately savaging and soothing.
The musical mélange Farrar presents on The Search follows fairly directly from elements explored on his solo albums and on as previous Son Volt discs. As such, there is at this point no sensible demarcation between a Farrar solo release and a Son Volt record, despite the hoopla that accompanied revival of the Son Volt name a couple years ago.
Farrar’s solo-album experimentation with rhythm-centric wordplay weighs heavily on several numbers, most notably “Action” and “Automatic Society”. Also apparent is the influence of his work with the Flaming Lips’ Stephen Drozd, whose synth-string swells on Sebastopol are echoed in this disc’s bookend tracks, “Slow Hearse” and “Phosphate Skin”.
Other tunes, such as “Satellite” and “L Train”, follow the tight rock ensemble approach that has been a Son Volt hallmark since 1995′s Trace. (The core band this time around features Brad Rice, Andrew Duplantis, Derry DeBorja and Dave Bryson.) Elsewhere, the piano-based balladry exemplified in the Okemah highlight “The World Waits For You” is revisited. There’s little left to recall the countrified days of Uncle Tupelo, though a sweet duet with Shannon McNally on “Highways And Cigarettes” (featuring Eric Heywood on pedal steel) is deeply redolent of Townes Van Zandt’s songcraft.
The result is a record that sounds “all mixed up in modern cacophony,” to quote from the title track. That’s a pretty fair summation of the lyrical content here as well. Occasionally, Farrar’s remarks are surprisingly straightforward; on “Underground Dream”, he declares, “Guns or education, the answer’s larger than the Hollywood sign,” while on “The Picture”, he equates that “War is profit and profit is war.”
Typically, though, his writing is more allusive than assertive. “Society’s bones on a cafeteria tray,” he muses on “Beacon Soul”, hinting at the same sort of social decay he evokes in the rapid-fire rejoinder, “Cash back, heart attack, you want fries with that?” (from “Automatic Society”). “Methamphetamine”, meanwhile, is a tough tale of a downtrodden soul who pines for past loved ones to take him back, even as he realizes that “the army won’t want me after what this body’s been through.” The opening cut is an atmospheric piano-centered scene-setter that repeats its hypnotic chant — “Feels like drivin’ ’round in a slow hearse” — eight times.
The tone of the message occasionally runs counter to the mood of the music. “The Picture” begins with an image of “Hurricanes in December, earthquakes in the heartland,” all the while bouncing along to a bright and cheery melody and an arrangement buoyed by a full-fledged horn section. “Beacon Soul” has a similarly major-key sunny sound, even as Farrar croons about how the “rats are bigger than the noiseless generation.”
By far the most arresting song on the disc, however, is the one track that delves into much more deeply personal territory. “Adrenaline And Heresy” finds its narrator coming to terms with the dissolution of a long relationship, finally laying the terms bare through his partner’s words: “She said, ‘I still love you/I don’t know if I want to spend the rest of my time with you/The rest of my life with you.’” Farrar repeats those lines three times as the song ascends to its apex, his voice reaching and keening with an aching vulnerability that lays bare his soul like nothing else he’s ever recorded.
Such moments of solitary and worldly upheaval notwithstanding, The Search constantly vows to press onward, through the fog. “It’s a new day,” “We’ll find a way,” “Don’t have any fear,” “Reverse the flow of negative energy,” “They can never take us down,” and “They can’t take away this underground dream,” Farrar affirms in the midst of six separate songs. As bleak as things may appear, he seems to be saying, it is within our power to turn it around. As he sings on the album’s title track, “The door is open to change your mind.”