Attempt at Optimism

Son Volt's brand-new album gets back to the basics

Jay Farrar has one of those voices.

Either it sounds to you like fleeting white lines on a dark highway, or muddy water flowing endlessly along a tree-lined riverbank, or you don't get it at all. It's an embodiment of his songs: rustically beautiful, and accepting of life in all its mottled, even damaged, yet unflinching openness.

With the July 7 Son Volt release, American Central Dust, Farrar returns to familiar musical territory—pedal-steel moans and shimmers, fiddle flights and trills, percussion passing time or skipping a beat, all surrounding Farrar's guitar in his signature mélange of folk, country, blues and ballad pop.

Farrar says he was ready to get back to basics after Son Volt's 2007 release.

"The Search allowed for the inspiration to take hold that maybe more of a fundamental approach to song structure and a more familiar instrumentation was the way to go this time," he says.

Songs on The Search were textured with instruments—saxophone, trumpet, sitar and keyboards—not heard before in Son Volt's catalog; nor could they be found in Farrar's solo catalog. "As a songwriter, I always try to follow wherever inspiration is drawing me in order to stay true to that," Farrar explains. "I can't write in the same constraints. It's more about exploring possibilities both in terms of song structure and instrumentation."

Only the keyboard sound survived those sessions to reappear on American Central Dust, but the songs pick up a lyric thread woven through The Search that began in Okemah and the Melody of Riot, the album for which Farrar resurrected Son Volt after three releases under his own name.

Of Okemah, Farrar said, in a 2005 interview, "I don't think of myself as a political writer, and I don't want to do that forever, but on this record, a lot of the songs were written during the six-month period that sort of coincided with the run-up to the (2004) presidential elections. Some of the positions were being thrown about and some of them kind of surfaced."

Themes of frustration about U.S. politics and its motivations surface again among the road songs, history lessons and songs of struggling love on American Central Dust. "Down to the Wire" features lines like, "The intrigues of the new royalty / and the believers in the afterlife / share the same gamblers' pages," and "Plastic grocery bags fly from trees / Proud symbols of a cavalier progress." "When the Wheels Don't Move" imagines life with unaffordable gas prices.

However, Farrar says about Dust, "I think that this was my attempt at an optimistic record. Perhaps it's the same old approach to confronting problems as the blues. When you play the blues, you actually feel better.

"Having grown up and soaked up a lot of folk music, and definitely Bob Dylan and Neil Young, there's always at least an acknowledgement of current events. Especially over the last eight years, it seemed like a dark period for a while. These songs were written in the summer of '08, so even at that time, there was kind of a palpable mood in the country that things weren't going to change for the better."

Still, Farrar says, the news of the day played only a small role among his inspirations for Dust. The uncertainty of that 2008 summer involved a potentially more positive outcome. "That kind of coincided with the idea that I didn't really want to write about anything really topical. If there is any conception of political content in a song like 'Down to the Wire,' it's probably filtered through more of a historical context.

"I was kind of thinking of some things I'd learned about recently about striking workers in the early 20th century. At that time, industry and politics were often kind of inextricably linked. Politicians could call out the National Guard and have them shoot striking workers. Thankfully, that kind of thing doesn't happen anymore in this country."

He adds that he's recently learned that some plastic bags are now biodegradable. "If I could, I would go back and change that line in the song," he says.

Dust introduces a new kind of Farrar song, with "Sultana," the little-known story of a shipwreck on the Mississippi that killed more souls than the Titanic, and "Cocaine and Ashes," a tribute to Keith Richards.

"I've always adhered to a more impressionistic style of writing," he says, "more a stream-of-consciousness style, blowing out ideas and making structure out of that. I prefer to work that way; it's like working backward. But for 'Sultana' and 'Cocaine and Ashes,' I had a central theme and wrote the rest of the song to support that."

Most people probably thought the story of Keith Richards snorting his cremated father's ashes was either hilarious or profoundly icky. But Farrar, a longtime fan, lost his own father in 2003, and whether or not the Richards story was true, he felt the sentiment was genuine, even touching, in Richards' context. Of "Cocaine and Ashes," Farrar says, "I sorta feel like his original statement was pretty real and honest, so that's the way I interpreted it."

Fans have come to expect metaphors rich in history and politics in Farrar's songs, so much so that they often read their own into his lyrics. Farrar values that quality and strives for it. "I try not to be too specific in writing songs," he says "and they can take on different meanings in different situations."

Few could mistake, though, the relentless optimism of the road song "Roll On" and its lyrics, "Roll on with the dreamers / Believers in the steel-eyed soul," or the empathy in the love song "Dust of Daylight." Its refrain may be Farrar's most memorable since, "May the wind take your troubles away": "Love is a fog and you stumble / every step you take."

It may not be optimistic, but it's honest, and it means about the same in any situation.

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