Few artists have been more sonically economical than Son Volt. In the quarter century (!) since Jay Farrar founded the band, they’ve not recorded many “epics,” at least not when measured with a stopwatch. Rather, their songs are instrumentally rich, full of tempo changes, and lyrically deep, all while simultaneously ambling along and wrapping quickly, rarely reaching the four-minute mark. It’s a neat trick, and it’s not easily duplicated. Their latest offering, Union (Transmit Sound), fits into their familiar mold while offering up new political depth.
On 2017’s Notes of Blue, Son Volt went a bit “electric,” at least more so than most of their previous work. In 2019, Jar Farrar has largely put the electric guitar back on the shelf and focused his intensity on his songwriting and his frustration with the state of our world. “While Rome Burns” looks at the emphasis of money and frivolity over what’s important – “Pissing away what others died to create” – and wonders why no action has been taken – “Time to face the music/Time to make the fur fly/And we fiddle while Rome burns.” As he often does, Farrar sings desperate lyrics over a sunny, easy-going acoustic bed. “The 99” is a bit more musically direct, while representing those whose lives are a bit too busy to spend time fiddling: “No way to get ahead because it’s already spent.”
“Reality Winner” is the most pointedly political track on Union. The song, played at a pensive tempo, tells the true-life story of an Air Force veteran and former intelligence analyst imprisoned for sharing classified material (regarding Russian attempts to hack voting systems) with the media. Farrar ties the fate of Ms. Winner to the former reality show host currently occupying the White House: “Proud to serve/Just not this president.” “Lady Liberty,” at a slight but powerful 83 seconds, also expresses dissatisfaction with current US policy: “Lady Liberty’s tears/May they wash away prejudice.”
In the midst of recording Union, Farrar realized that an album full of political discontent might lack balance. “The Reason” is musically breezy, with lyrics to (somewhat) match – “All of the fury of the downpour can be a blessing in disguise.” In other words, It’s OK to get out and enjoy life. “Slowburn” also finds eventual promise in the darkness – “Every tunnel reaches the light.” But the album concludes with a serious message in “The Symbol.” Appropriately introduced with a tinge of swampy blues, it’s the story of a Mexican man who helped set New Orleans back on its feet after Katrina. In our current anti-immigrant fervor, however, “Juan from Monterrey” finds himself no longer welcome in the city he helped save. But it’s not enough to evict just him – he finds his US-born kids are also at risk: “They say these children, they too must go/But their home’s here, not Mexico.” It’s a historically repeating stanza in American history, which makes Farrar’s telling all the more chilling.
Longtime band members Mark Spencer (piano, organ, acoustic slide, lap steel, backing vocals) and Andrew DuPlantis (bass, backing vocals) join Farrar on Union. Guitarist Chris Frame, who formerly toured with Son Volt, rejoins the band in the studio, and DuPlantis brought fellow Austin musician Mark Patterson in to play drums and percussion.