Son Volt Gets Topical on 'Union'
Long-running alt-country act Son Volt mixes some forceful politics with a bit of filler for an album that's not quite as unified as it could have been.
Transmit Music / Thirty Tigers
29 March 2019
Over 25 years, multiple iterations and one notable hiatus, Son Volt has maintained their consistency even as they've tinkered with their sound. But just putting a few twists in their music, the alt-country rockers have traversed a good bit of traditional American music. These changes seem to stem from the band – and frontman Jay Farrar in particular – digging into new interests. For 2013's Honky Tonk, those interests circled around Bakersfield and pedal steel. Two years ago, the group reworked blues traditions and tunings for Notes of Blue. Now, with the release of Union, Farrar and crew sound less interested in musical sources and more focused on political concerns. The topical approach guides much of the album, making for an explicitly political record that, when it stays sharp, makes for an effective listen.
If the group's work on Union could be traced to a singular root (and it can't quite be), it would point to Woody Guthrie. Closer "The Symbol" connects to Guthrie's "Deportee", and the group recorded a handful of these tracks at the Woody Guthrie Center. The Dust Bowl battles for the common man come through, even if no fascists were harmed in the making of this album. Guthrie keeps his vocals pretty steady, though his frustration comes through whether he talks about wealth imbalance ("The 99") or the plight of a recent federal whistleblower ("Reality Winner").
At the band's best, tracks like these hit their targets through clarity and directness. Farrar's writing lapses on occasion, though, as on the cliched "Lady Liberty", with lyrics that sound like too many before them ("Lady Liberty, are you here?"). The title track makes considers an idea unusual in pop music, that "national service will keep the union together". The slow pace becomes deadened by Farrar's lack of poetic devices. The absence of rhyme keeps it conversational, but clunky phrasing like "A two-party system / The donkey and the elephant / Liberals and conservatives / Each fight for their own survival" turns the whole track into a plod.
Fortunately, the band rarely feels stuck. "Devil May Care" skips all of the country's nonsense for a catchy mid-tempo number about the way the band creates their sound. "Dynamic rhythm and high gain beliefs" could be a motto for any band looking to turn a club into something more. "Broadsides" gets a dirtier sound and plays on the meaning of the titular word to sketch a dark situation. Farrar's impressionistic lyrics play well here, building a mood rather that suits the nature of the album. That sort of language works well enough that it's disappointing when he slips into cliches. "The Reason" should have been left as an outtake, a pleasant enough recording, but so full of stock phrases that it could almost work as some sort of play on cliched language itself (though that reading would be hard to pull out).
Farrar's inconsistent language on Union comes as a surprise. The band's as tight as ever, relaxed but always strong, but Farrar seems to drift in intensity and focus. At moments, he's ready to take on the whole American power structure, a natural successor to Guthrie with a band capable of going with him. At other times he's too slapdash in throwing together worn ideas about liberty or blessings in disguises. With much of the album responding with force to the state of the union in 2019, it's a shame that there's any filler here at all. Son Volt sound good as always, but they could have used a little more editing to get an album undivided in quality.
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