Jay Farrar has long had a reputation as a morose guy with a fondness for inscrutable, impressionistic lyrics. That’s only half right. In reality, the Son Volt singer is simply self-contained. He doesn’t have a public persona, or much of a social media presence. Farrar is focused instead on writing songs that say what he wants them to say, and then letting them stand on their own. And while he’s written some downer tunes, particularly when he was wrestling with youthful cynicism early in his career, there aren’t as many of those as you might think from the sound of his preternaturally weathered, lived-in voice. In fact, these days, there’s often a hopeful current running beneath the surface. In his low-key way, Farrar has become a quietly radical idealist.
Even amid the lingering chaos and cruelty of the Trump years, a global pandemic, and protests and unrest in response to the ever more visible framework of structural racism in America, Farrar sees cause for a measure of optimism on Electro Melodier, Son Volt’s 10th album. He’s a believer in grassroots, bottom-up solutions that involve people working together, a notion that recurs in Son Volt’s latter-day work. He makes the idea explicit on “Living in the USA,” a centerpiece of the new album that catalogs the contradictions inherent in 21st-century America, from the dark money and fear-mongering that undermine the system to the resilience of those fighting for a better, more equitable nation. “Power invested in people, let the ideas shine,” Farrar sings over a bed of acoustic guitar topped with overdriven electric guitar licks and a steady beat.
Elsewhere, there’s a sense of change in the air as people in the street push back against authority on “The Globe,” a sturdy roots-rocker with a Moog synth part in the middle that recalls The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” “Someday Is Now” finds “players of the long con” getting toppled for their perfidy, and Farrar intones the lyrics with a stern gravitas, accompanied by hard-strummed acoustic guitar and foreboding electric licks. Midway through, the song kicks into a different gear, as if the band turned onto a straightaway and buried the accelerator.
Not every song on Electro Melodier (named for two vintage guitar amplifiers) is topical. Farrar has also written his fair share of (admittedly oblique) love songs over the years: “Caryatid Easy,” from 1997’s Straightaways, or “Dynamite,” from 2009’s American Central Dust, are just a couple of them. Here, he draws inspiration from his marriage of 25 years on “Lucky Ones,” where a burbling organ vamp swirls around his earnest vocals. He takes a rootsier turn on “Diamonds & Cigarettes,” a duet with Laura Cantrell featuring piano and twangy lead guitar from Chris Frame as Farrar reflects on “all the hard lessons with no regrets” that can come from making a life with a partner.
Musically, Farrar stays close to the country-rock sound he began honing with Uncle Tupelo in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with harmony vocals from bassist Andrew Duplantis often sweetening the melodies on Electro Melodier. There are a few variations on theme: “Arkey Blues,” one of his finer latter-day efforts, alternates between a rollicking guitar riff and mournful piano, while there’s a dusky country-blues feel to “War on Misery.” Acoustic slide guitar and Farrar’s dusty voice carry “The Levee on Down”—one of his history-minded songs, in this case about Andrew Jackson’s forced-removal campaign against the Cherokee.
It’s been said that Farrar has been making a version of the same album over and over since Son Volt’s 1995 debut, Trace, but that’s a simplistic perspective. What’s true is that his sound is unmistakable, no matter what direction he steers Son Volt’s music. Though his penchant for indirect, sometimes esoteric lyrical imagery can result in clunky turns of phrase, the songs on Electro Melodier are the subtly engrossing work of a songwriter who continues to hone his craft, and shift his worldview, more than three decades after he started.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.