A delicate, echoing piano chimes a couple chords before indicating the spry melody of “Slow Hearse”, the first track on Son Volt’s The Search. There is a lonesome tinge to the piano and to the strain in Jay Farrar’s voice as he begins the track’s mantra vocal of “feels like drivin’ ‘round, in a slow hearse”. The words are almost morbid and yet the instrumental accompaniment that builds, and the resolution that builds in the vocal leave a hopeful taste to the lament. It serves as a fine initial guidepost along The Search, which is littered with heartbreak but must be an ultimately purposeful affair.
This leads into “The Picture” which noisily subsumes any melancholy with driving, infectious horns. There are elements of Warren Zevon and E, of the Eels, in the singing and this becomes something of a troubling realization, but more of that later. The repetition of “we’ll know when we get there” furthers the resolution of the textual journey plotted in the title. What can be delicate and introspective can as easily be conveyed in rough bombast.
The latter method is further evidenced in “Action” which tumbles about a descending guitar riff. Vocals accompany the descent and lyrics are jumbled together, vying for a little room to dictate all that must be said. If this sounds a little jumbled, it certainly is and reveals one of the shortcomings of these tunes. Too often Farrar sounds like he has too much to say and a less than keen sense for editing himself. There are a number of songs which bear the amateur ear-mark of shoving too many lyrics into too little rhythmic space instead of settling on something more simple and memorable. Hooks are hard to come by as repetition alone does not make a phrase remarkable or resonant. Especially if said phrase does not rise by somehow distinguishing itself from Farrar’s whirlwind mumble.
And there’s that voice that borrows considerably from E and surrounds itself in folksy, blues-rock that looks longingly to a style the Eels have all but perfected. It is a hard comparison to shake and proves to be a lingering disappointment. Wouldn’t the high range of E add a welcome dynamic to the cluttered lyricism? Or the same applied to more tender moments would actually lend them some needed pathos.
The titular track combines an uplifting, lilting vocal with a crunchy, grunge guitar. Farrar’s high assurances of “always dreamin’, it’s the search not the find” are paraded forth on a crest of guitar and organ. The drums are big and insistent. It may all sound a bit like a throwback to a not-so-bygone era but it is a pleasant reminder of the particular joy of the “alternative” scene. It’s just this side of a hazy slacker anthem, perhaps that mentality in a new millennium. Perhaps this is the search the album is preoccupied with: finding one’s comfort as time continually alienates, reforming your old band with new personnel, and acknowledging the past while venturing forward as you cannot help but do.
The Search has moments of actual beauty. Interestingly these are marked by longing but in a plaintive, honest manner. “Adrenaline and Heresy” cannot say it all and understands its own inability to communicate. Farrar speaks of a troubled relationship admitting that “a collection of words can’t describe it”. Even hackneyed “crossroads” imagery is excused by the lonesome resignation in delivery. The comparison invoked is favorable this time sounding close to the pretty hopelessness of a Zevon ballad. And the pick-up coda doesn’t really sound like the familiar device it is. It just fits, it is of a piece.
Aside from some standout songs, reactions to The Search are largely due to how you feel about the grungy, alt sound. It may be sweetly familiar. If this is the case the new Son Volt is right on. It may start to sound muddled and uninspired. It may sound out of step. The use of the phrase “you want fries with that?” in the not-so-vicious indictment of “Automatic Society” is mostly lame. Similarly complaining about televangelism on “Methamphetamine” undermines the beauty of the slide guitar melody with a clumsy old saw. But no one said this was the final word. In fact the record is real up-front about what’s going on here. This is just part of the journey, there’s always more to figure out.