Music

Son Volt Gets Topical on 'Union'

Photo: David McClister/ All Eyes Media

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.

Union
Son Volt

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.

6
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Will COVID-19 Kill Movie Theaters?

Streaming services and large TV screens have really hurt movie theaters and now the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered multiplexes and arthouses. The author of The Perils of Moviegoing in America, however, is optimistic.

Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D
Television

Fleabag's Hot Priest and Love as Longing

In season two of Fleabag, The Priest's inaccessibility turns him into a sort of god, powerful enough for Fleabag to suddenly find herself spending hours in church with no religious motivation.

Music

Annabelle's Curse's 'Vast Oceans' Meditates on a Groundswell of Human Emotions (premiere)

Inspired by love and life, and of persistent present-day issues, indie folk band Annabelle's Curse expand their sound while keeping the emotive core of their work with Vast Oceans.

Music

Americana's Sarah Peacock Finds Beauty Beneath Surface With "Mojave" (premiere + interview)

Born from personal pain, "Mojave" is evidence of Sarah Peacock's perseverance and resilience. "When we go through some of the dry seasons in our life, when we do the most growing, is often when we're in pain. It's a reminder of how alive you really are", she says.

Television

Power Struggle in Beauty Pageants: On 'Mrs. America' and 'Miss Americana'

Television min-series Mrs. America and Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana make vivid how beauty pageants are more multi-dimensional than many assume, offering a platform to some (attractive) women to pursue higher education, politics, and more.

Hilary Levey Friedman
Music

Pere Ubu 'Comes Alive' on Their New, Live Album

David Thomas guides another version of Pere Ubu through a selection of material from their early years, dusting off the "hits" and throwing new light on some forgotten gems.

Music

Woods Explore Darkness on 'Strange to Explain'

Folk rock's Woods create a superb new album, Strange to Explain, that mines the subconscious in search of answers to life's unsettling realities.

Music

The 1975's 'Notes on a Conditional Form' Is Laudably Thought-Provoking and Thrilling

The 1975 follow A Brief Inquiry... with an even more intriguing, sprawling, and chameleonic song suite. Notes on a Conditional Form shows a level of unquenchable ambition, creativity, and outspoken curiosity that's rarely felt in popular music today.

Music

Dustbowl Revival's "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)" Is a Cheeky Reproach of COVID-19 (premiere)

Inspired by John Prine, Dustbowl Revival's latest single, "Queen Quarantine (A Home Recording)", approaches the COVID-19 pandemic with wit and good humor.

Books

The 2020 US Presidential Election Is Going to Be Wild but We've Seen Wild Before

Americans are approaching a historical US presidential election in unprecedented times. Or are they? Chris Barsanti's The Ballot Box: 10 Presidential Elections That Changed American History gives us a brief historical perspective.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.