On Son Volt’s new record, Union, present and past mingle into strong confluence. The thirteen new songs written by founder Jay Farrar confront our turbulent politics and articulate the clarity and comfort music can offer in the tumult. “There are so many forces driving our country apart,” observes Farrar. “What can we do to bring our society back together?”
The country and blues sounds explored by Son Volt on its last two records (2013’s Honky Tonk and 2017’s Notes of Blue) linger in the grooves of Union. But the new record nods to many other mile markers along the band’s 25-year path. Some tunes offer a powerful return to the ringing lyrical clarity of 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot and 2007’s The Search. Others hearken back to the freewheeling poetic melodicism of 1994’s Trace and 1997’s Straightaways.
“Broadsides will be hurled to capture the truth,” sings Farrar on the brooding and blues-driven song that takes its name from the one-page bulletins that used to spread both proclamations and ballads. And songs such as “The 99,” “While Rome Burns,” and “Lady Liberty” push up the acoustic guitar in the mix to underscore the enduring role of troubadours in troubled times. “A lot of these songs are songs of turmoil,” says Farrar. “Questioning what’s going on.”
On Union, Farrar taps into folk music’s rich lyrical legacy. It’s a tradition he has tapped often both in Son Volt and in Uncle Tupelo. “I was raised on folk music,” observes Farrar. “Politics is a common thread there. In a time where we see threats to our way of life, and our democracy, from within, you say: What can I do? I put pen to paper and write music.”
The chorus of Union’s title song was a “mantra” of James Paul ‘Pops’ Farrar, about whom Farrar has written so affectingly in his memoir, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs. “He thought the Israeli model was best,” says the songwriter. “Everybody serves in one capacity or another, and that was the best way to bring a country together. It did happen here in World War II. People of different spiritual and economic backgrounds brought together. And there was an immense period of prosperity after that – for a myriad of reasons, but the idea that all walks of life were working together is important.”
Union grounds its politics in startling images and portraits of the human costs of our divides. Guitar and organ commingle on “While Rome Burns” to underscore a connectedness in the way that “the freeways lead to the gravel roads, to the town squares and the rodeos.”
The mournful shuffling “Reality Winner” echoes direct protest songs such as “Hurricane” – Bob Dylan’s ode to boxer Rubin Carter, who was wrongly convicted of triple homicide in 1967. Winner is a former intelligence analyst who leaked a National Security Agency document that detailed Russian attempts to hack voting systems to the media. She was convicted of violating the Espionage Act and sentenced to five years and three months in prison.
“We have a reality TV show president,” Farrar says, “and we have this woman named Reality Winner, and they’re linked in a way. She represents everything that you want in an American, someone who’s learned three languages and does her part. She’s basically a whistleblower doing hard time. Maybe this song brings more awareness to her plight.”