The navel-gazing world of rock finally seems to be catching up with the national zeitgeist, one that's fed up with Orwellian politics and an increasingly vapid cultural landscape. But Son Volt's Jay Farrar has been asking pointed questions and seeking honest answers for almost two decades now -- never more so than on the band's latest, The Search.
"I wish there were other things to think about than the direction our country seems headed in," the soft-spoken Farrar says from his St. Louis home. "It's something that I almost wish I could get away from."
But like many Americans, events have forced his hand. Still, let's be clear: Farrar's catalog of incisive, country rock-flavored social commentary -- forged in Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and in five years as a solo artist -- shouldn't be mistaken for, say, the Clash's agit-prop. But over the years Farrar's taken his musical cues from iconic cultural observers ranging from Black Flag to Woody Guthrie, and their questioning spirit permeates his songs.
More than the political landscape, Farrar's concerned with the corrosive cultural and personal effects of our blind rush into the "progress" of the Information Age. On the title track from the band's new record, he sees a nation that's totally plugged in, but increasingly tuned out and alienated. Finding meaning in the "modern cacophony" and post-modern cultural hall of mirrors is more difficult than ever, yet never more paramount. Gasoline junkies, terror threats, eroding liberties, televangelists, immigration wars and ecological disaster run through the record's lyrics like a 24/7 satellite news-ticker.
But The Search isn't a Luddite screed or nihilistic; hope rides along like a passenger on this particular journey. Farrar says that's partly a product of the palpable political sea change away from "conservative cowboy ideologies" over the last two years
"Being in the middle of the country here you could just feel a mood shift," he adds. "That's probably what makes me more optimistic than anything that things will be moving in a different direction."
That optimism is hard-won, and tempered by a healthy degree of road-tested cynicism. Uncle Tupelo's four seminal records of punk-tinged country rock chronicled life in the margins, particularly in dying industrial towns like Belleville, Ill., the hometown of Farrar and his old band-mate Jeff Tweedy. Farrar's songs in particular shone an unflinching light on a world far from big city glamour and Dot-com bubbles.
Shortly after Tupelo's acrimonious split, Farrar picked up that torch with the first incarnation of Son Volt. Though 1994's Trace was made from similar musical DNA, there was a sense that Farrar's vision was expanding, and he was finding meaning -- or at least acceptance -- where he'd previously seen little to hope for. In part, that led him to put Son Volt on hold after the band's third record, 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, so he could pursue more diverse sonic territory beyond the blistering rock and wistful country of his previous bands. No one could confuse his solo material with bubble-gum pop, but there was an undercurrent of hope detectable amidst the sober-eyed chronicles.
"You're supposed to be optimistic and idealistic when you're young, right?" Farrar laughs. "But I was probably more cynical when I was young."
Becoming a father had a lot to do with that, as did the passing of his own dad around the same time. Pere Farrar was a merchant marine and bequeathed his son a strong sense of wanderlust. That's a handy trait for a touring musician, and one reason why he's been tapped to supply the soundtrack to an upcoming documentary on the ultimate wanderer, Jack Kerouac.
"You get to experience a different way of life on the road," Farrar said during an earlier interview we did in 2003. "It's usually life intensified. You're meeting a lot of people that you wouldn't meet otherwise and finding yourself in a lot of different situations that you wouldn't normally be in. So you're forced to question a lot of things that you encounter, and I think you grow stronger from being in that situation."
After two comparably subdued solo outings and the soundtrack to the Ryan Gosling film, The Slaughter Rule, Farrar felt the time was right to revive Son Volt. The band emerged in 2005 with a new cast of players including ex-Butthole Surfer Andrew DuPlantis on bass, Canyon drummer Dave Bryson, and ex-Backsliders guitarist Brad Rice (since replaced by Jack Ingram's guitarist Chris Masterson). Okemah & the Melody of Riot -- named in part after Woody Guthrie's birthplace -- was the most overtly political record of Farrar's career. Harkening back to the straight-ahead crunch and twang of Trace, it was a candid appraisal of post-millennial America that included a withering attack on Bush's Vietnam record (or lack thereof) ironically titled "Jet Pilot."
The Search, on the other hand, finds Farrar incorporating his more experimental solo side with familiar Son Volt terrain. (A 2006 side project with Varnaline's Anders Parker, Gob Iron, really scratched his country itch.) The Search blends backwards Revolver-esque guitar loops, mellotron swirls, Eastern accents and Memphis soul with solid rock riffs and old-school country. The addition of another Canyon exile, keyboardist Derry DeBorja, adds to the band's sonic palate. Farrar also enlisted pedal steel player extraordinaire Eric Heywood -- a fixture in the first Son Volt -- to play on a couple tracks. Not only do his rich, surging lines help make "Methamphetamine" -- a devastating chronicle of the drug's scourge -- one of Farrar's most evocative songs, they provide a bridge between the two versions of Son Volt.
Like all art that resonates, Farrar's music shuns doctrinaire answers; unlike our arrogant leaders and free market missionaries, he's been around enough to know there aren't any. That doesn't preclude cause for hope, though, because it's the search itself that usually changes us. As he sings on "The Picture" over a joyous blast of Memphis horns, "We'll know when we get there/If we find mercy."