Earnest, plainspoken and single-minded, Jay Farrar has amassed a sizable and distinctive body of work since coming on the radar with Uncle Tupelo in 1987. The Search, the fifth album by the St. Louis-based artist under the Son Volt nameplate, takes Farrar's signature juxtapositions of the arcane and the modern to provocative extremes, contrasting the blue highways of a disappearing cultural landscape with a perilous world in which the center no longer holds - a world of information overload, of clueless leaders carrying out sinister agendas, of "Hurricanes in December - earthquakes in the heartland/Bad air index on a flashing warning sign," as the artist sings ruefully on "The Picture." The Search's 14 songs locate and vividly portray the prevailing modes of the human condition in the first decade of the 21st century: cynicism ("Beacon Soul"), reflection ("The Search"), restlessness ("L Train," "Highways and Cigarettes"), yearning ("Adrenaline and Heresy"), paranoia ("Automatic Society"), despair ("Methamphetamine") and conditional hopefulness ("Underground Dream," "Phosphate Skin"). By turns melancholy and exhilarating, the album further cements Farrar's status as one of rock's most eloquent chroniclers of contemporary existence.
Five albums into Son Volt's career--and a pair into the band's rebirth following leader Jay Farrar's several solo ventures--it's time to bury the encumbering "alt-country" moniker that has dogged Farrar since his days in the genre-setting Uncle Tupelo. While the inexhaustible songwriter relied on guitars to drive 2005's rock-heavy Okemah and the Melody of Riot
, Son Volt amends its familiar arrangements on The Search
, balancing the instrumentation with piano, organ, and dabbles in a horn section. "Feels like drivin' 'round in a slow hearse," Farrar pleads over repetitive piano and East Indian guitar loops in "Slow Hearse." It's a pensive opener that suggests something is askew, but the horns that kick off "The Picture" literally scream it from the Stax vaults. Farrar dives in and out of genres, tingling the ivories to add subtle alterations to both the gorgeous "Underground Dream" and Imagine
-like "Adrenaline and Heresy," turning his band into Gang of Four for the 134-second rocker "Satellite" and singing alongside Shannon McNally on the soulful "Highways and Cigarettes." While it may be impossible for this Son Volt to ever reach the pinnacle of their 1995 debut, no one can accuse Jay Farrar of going through the motions. --Scott Holter