Jay Farrar writes songs from the tangled backwoods of the soul, in a dimly lit recess where what little light shines only illuminates the despair that dogs him. In the seven years since he introduced the first of those songs as one-third of the seminal neo-country band Uncle Tupelo, Farrar, now the frontman for Son Volt, has fine-tuned the language of his work -- scaling down the words until they add up to so many fragments of sight and sound, creating portraits in that darkness that are abstract but never distant, obtuse but never detached, poetic but never pretentious. If his songs are seldom forthright, there is always a line or a phrase that snaps them into clear focus, that sticks you into the heart of Farrar's darkness, where your eyes adjust even though you're not quite sure what you're seeing.
Son Volt's 1995 debut Trace was both the culmination of Farrar's contributions to Uncle Tupelo -- which he broke up in 1994, leaving his long-time partner Jeff Tweedy to form Wilco -- and a step farther back into the knotted complexities of his muse. A travelogue through the decaying small towns of the South and a diary of Farrar's self-doubt, pessimism, and grim world-view, Trace is an album in which the sum of its parts is great enough to carry and even lend strength to the vagueness of Farrar's writing. And musically Son Volt is capable of far more than Tupelo was. Farrar's discovery of just the right country radio station in "Windfall" is made all the more epochal by the lap-steel fills of Dave Boquist, which wrap like smoke around Farrar's plea to "let the wind take your troubles away." The torrential layers of guitars by Farrar and Boquist on "Drown" reinforce the apocalypse metaphor in this bitter saga of romance washing away (when "the cruel, cruel mornings turn to days of swim or sink"). Farrar opens the bleak "Route" with the searing couplet "Reality burns/The way we're living is worse," then the band follows with an explosion of crunching power chords, the steady bass of Jim Boquist, and ex-Tupeloer Mike Heidorn's propulsive drumming all underlining Farrar's angst.
With the new Straightaways, however, Farrar has taken his songwriting to a place even more secluded than the nether regions of his soul -- someplace so far inside himself that he's created if not a new language, then at least a new way of using language, a new way of expressing the things that are hardest to articulate. Which is a way of saying that, more times than not, you simply cannot fathom what Farrar is going on about even as the music sucks you in. Despite the immediate thrust of Straightaways's opening track "Caryatid Easy," in which Farrar traces a winding melody through a complex maze of meandering guitars and nervous bass, this song of memories gathered and examined leaves you wondering what in hell it all means. The words come fast, furious -- like the brain reacting to a sudden cataclysmic occurrence, with all the confusion and dizziness a reaction like that can bring. "Caryatid Easy" rumbles loudly and impressively, but it signifies nothing you can grasp. The opening "I remember one faded summer" lends poetic weight to the later "Educated with poison laughter/Seems like high times every morning after," but what do you make of "Caryatid easy leaves my eyes," the song's lyric hook? The only hint comes in a later reference to Farrar "living inside my mind play," surely the only place where these non sequiturs make sense.
But as far back as Uncle Tupelo's first album, Farrar has worked best within the parameters of his own dark, shadowy vision. Always the brooding half of Uncle Tupelo -- the one who essayed most effectively on alcoholism, loneliness, and small-town alienation and depression -- Farrar used the band to sort through the divergent influences that he and Jeff Tweedy had amassed when they hooked up in the post-high school punk group the Primitives. Attracted to everything from the intricate hardcore punk of the Minutemen to the Carter Family's hard-scrabble mountain country, from the garage-rock of the Standells to the chiming folk-psychedelia of R.E.M.'s first couple of albums, the Primitives -- renamed Uncle Tupelo in 1987 -- found a way to mash them all together by simply playing them the way they felt them. On the early albums -- 1990's No Depression and 1991's Still Feel Gone, issued on the indie Rockville label -- that meant a pummeling, metallic "Graveyard Shift" would give way to an acoustic run through the Carter Family's "No Depression," or that an earnest tribute to the Minutemen's late singer ("d. boon") would arrive minutes after a drunken call for one more shot at stability ("Still Be Around").
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Those early albums were passionate and energetic but ultimately tentative, with the band still toiling in the shadow of its all-too-obvious mentors. By the release of March 16-20 1992, Tupelo had shed its bombastic punk dynamics and veered deeply into the heart of America's prewar folk songbook. Instead of looking for inspiration in the expanse of their record collections, Farrar and Tweedy found their voices in handed-down tales that were older than their parents -- in Frank Proffitt's foreboding "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," in the rousing labor lament "Coalminers," in the fatalist biography of a sodden "Moonshiner," and in the Louvin Brothers' "The Great Atomic Power," a Christian forecast of manmade doom. To these timeless tunes Farrar and Tweedy contributed their own astonishingly adept offerings: Tweedy's stark "Wait Up" and "Black Eye," and Farrar's somber "Criminals," not to mention his own miner's laments "Grindstone" and "Shaky Ground."
When they resurfaced the next year with Anodyne, their major-label debut on Sire/Reprise, Uncle Tupelo had fused the elements of previous albums into the most realized blend of rural country and blazing rock and roll since Jason and the Scorchers unleashed their Fervor EP back in '83. More important, Anodyne is where Farrar found his voice as an imagist -- where he learned to pinpoint for himself the exact place from which his melancholy brewed without giving you a complete discourse on the nature or the location of that melancholy. Both the title track and "Slate" typify this approach. On "Slate" Farrar strings together a series of disparate, seemingly random images over a plaintive acoustic-guitar figure that underpins the forlornness in this song of unfulfillment. "Anodyne," meanwhile, is sheer catharsis, an exorcism of epic pain and sweeping remorse. Farrar sings like a kicked dog, moaning the chorus, dragging the words out to shake away the tragedy within.
Tragedy is embedded in Farrar's voice, in Straightaways's eerie "Been Set Free" (a continuation of the murder ballad "Lilli Schull," which surfaced on the March album) but also on songs as hopeful as "Picking Up the Signal," a look at better times ahead, and the lovely "Back into Your World." It's Farrar's vocals -- evocative, full of portent and doom -- that redeem the murky lyrics on Straightaways, that hold these oblique, half-told stories together. From the character study of an alcoholic in "Last Minute Shakedown" to the wrecking-ball operator "Way Down Watson," who's spent the last twenty years leveling the past, Farrar gives these songs a coherence that exists beyond the mere power of the words. Like Michael Stipe on the early R.E.M. albums, and Stephen Malkmus on Pavement's first few releases, Farrar makes his music work not by what he says so much as how he says it. "No one here says what they mean," Farrar groans on the typically enigmatic "Cemetery Savior," but he no doubt knows exactly what he's saying. You probably won't, but it doesn't really matter when the whining steel guitar comes creeping around the vocals, when the acoustic guitars and drums combine to push the song into something beautiful and moving beyond words. Son Volt pulls off this kind of magic throughout Straightaways, making you feel the music even as it baffles you, as it forces you to skew your own vision to accommodate Farrar's deep, dark mind plays.