For those who were following the plot, it came as no surprise that nothing has been heard from Jay Farrar for the past three years. It also comes as no surprise that he has re-emerged with a solo record rather than a new Son Volt release. After all, the most recent Son Volt record, Wide Swing Tremolo, found the group dwindling, both creatively and commercially. With a couple of notable exceptions, the songs sounded tired and forced, as though Farrar's heart was no longer in the game.
Farrar's recently released first solo project, named after the Californian town of Sebastopol, suggests that he's at least rediscovered his inspiration, if not his focus. Produced by Farrar and indie-wizard John Agnello, the record finds Farrar delving into psychedelia, pop, and even prog-rock. Keyboards and organs abound, as do drum-loops and atypical guitar tunings. But more importantly, Farrar has come up with a sturdy set of tunes, his finest since Son Volt's Trace and his most interesting since Uncle Tupelo's Anodyne.
What made Farrar's work with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt so captivating was the juxtaposition of his low-pitched, monotone vocals on high-voltage rock and country music. On the other hand, his black-hole of a voice made some of his slower work impenetrable and even sleep-inducing. On Sebastopol, the amps have notably been turned down, perhaps to emphasize the record's remarkable sense of melody. "Voodoo Candle" is the catchiest thing Farrar has produced in years, and "Direction" even borders on power-pop. Fed through a vocoder, Farrar's voice rings with authority and assuredness against the rolling groove of "Clear Day Thunder".
He also works well with guests. Gillian Welch adds her sublime harmonies to "Barstow", a letter-perfect country travelogue with a healthy dose of foreboding, and Steve Drodze uses his Flaming Lip keyboard expertise to elevate "Drain" above its tired strumming and obtuse lyrics. The experimental instrumentation serves the songs well, updating and enhancing his grainy sound without sacrificing its vitality.
It's the lyrics on Sebastopol that could stand to be more straightforward. Though Farrar has always relied on woozy poetics to illustrate his ideas, he's never sounded as entrenched or trapped by lyrical obscurity as he does here. It's as if Farrar is utilizing a familiar vocabulary as part of his own, deeply personal language. Sometimes this approach works, as on "Damaged Son", where he subtly delivers a Christian take on spiritual consolation: "when you start to feel undone, take heart in the struggles of one / when you start to feel undone, take heart in the damaged son". Unfortunately, his evocative metaphors veer dangerously close to meaninglessness: on "Damn Shame" he tells us to "take it on, level it out / smoke beats water anyhow". And "Barstow" begins with the proclamation, "anyone caught speaking Esperanto / is thought crazy or heading for jail". If that's the case, then maybe Farrar himself should be locked up.
Finally though, what marks Sebastopol as a solo album is the same thing that keeps it from being great rather than good, namely, its cumbersome length. A voice like Farrar's starts to drone after ten tracks -- let alone 17 -- effectively softening its emotional impact. But self-indulgences aside, Sebastopol is a remarkable alt-folk album, worthy of careful listening and prolonged reflection.