Semantics are one thing and music is another. This new Son Volt record should prove that just fine, I would think.
Objectively speaking, it’s certainly hard, if you’re a fan of folk-rock in any permutation, not to get at least kind of psyched up for this new Son Volt outpouring. I mean, it’s springtime, typically a time for embracing melody and general use of the guitar, to a greater extent. It’s baseball season and not only are these guys Cardinals fanatics but this ALBUM is like almost grotesquely American, with titles like “While Rome Burns” (an obvious analogy of two world powers), “The 99” (meaning “percent,” as in the proportion of people “cheated by the system,” if you will), and of course “Union,” the title track, which could of course serve to complicate things, seeing as the Uncle Tupelo original lineup and reincarnation as Son Volt come from barely north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Is Union poised to flourish out as this band’s best record to date? I don’t see why not: it’s consistent, driven music all throughout, with proud guitar and esoteric whispers of Hammond Organ, “Broadsides” then demarcating a distinct step forward with this grunge-riff theme that might remind you more of Dead Meadow or Black Mountain than Lucinda Williams (thank God). “Reality Winner,” then, takes us back down to folky organ and steel guitar but not without purpose, an important slot on the album to follow the stylistic aberration of “Broadsides.” Somehow, even with all this success, Farrar still possesses the ability to act as the everyman here, asking “Is there any mercy?”, then letting a guttural, gorgeously textural lap steel guitar do the talking for a few bars, before dipping back into narrative.
Now, in terms of the political message of this album, there are a couple of minor problems I have with it. For one thing, in the Trump administration, things HAVE been done to cater to whites in middle America, what with his loosening of EPA regulations to lower unemployment, and general aid of the stock market. This whole “us vs. them” proletariat argument is sort of clichéd, in other words. The other of course would be that this band got its name on a major label, Warner Bros. in its beginning (ironically they were label mates of Wilco), so they’re hardly the noble savage, antiestablishment group of bandits they’d have you know here, and furthermore a certain half-empty quality in Farrar’s voice can serve to exacerbate this album’s stance as a sort of counterculture souvenir and not a real call to arms of any sort. Farrar has always kept a pretty low profile emotionally and run a pretty tight ship, firing Tweedy from Uncle Tupelo and persisting down a pretty selfsame path musically that consistently showcases his singing voice as a primary component of the music. If Union proves anything, it’s that on some level this age-old formula could use some change, but not badly enough as to FOMENT things into changing, just yet.