Jay Farrar’s penchant for standing firm and holding his ground was well established in the aftermath of the deepening divide between him and Jeff Tweedy, a decision that ultimately led to the demise of Uncle Tupelo, the formative outfit they helmed in common. It’s not unusual then to find Farrar still maintaining a demonstrative stance, given the determination that powers Union, the ninth album in Son Volt’s sometimes unsteady trajectory.
Indeed, Farrar appears more intent than ever to get his points across. Billed as a reaction to the travails and turmoil brought on by today’s political climate,Union makes no attempt to deny the irony of its title. With his ragged vocals front and center, Farrar and his
band’s latest line-up purvey a somber sound that’s occasionally mournful yet still assured and certain. The sentiments are unmistakable; “99 percent, it’s a trickle down world… stuck in cement,” Farrar declares on the sullen and sobering “The 99.”
It continues from there. “Lady Liberty are you still here, can you see us now?…May you wash away the president,” Farrar asks later on the pointed “Lady Liberty,” a not so subtle jab at the present administration and its attempts to slap anyone down who dares defy its ethics and intents. “Reality Winner,” cuts even deeper. The title is the name of an intelligence specialist currently in prison for sending a classified document to The Intercept. “Proud to serve, just not this president,” Farrar sings. “Does it seek the truth or find the answers?”
Farrar is suffering from more than a bit of discontent. No surprise there; he’s clearly in the majority these days. Yet given all the partisans that are sharing a message through their music these days, the volley of tirades sometimes seems like a blur. In Farrar’s case however, the barbs are especially sharp and decidedly on target. Indeed, what separates this particular protest epic is its commitment to context. Eight of its songs were recorded at places associated with two individuals that Farrar particularly reveres: community organizer Mary Harris (otherwise known as “Mother Jones”) and the immortal godfather of protest Woody Guthrie. Three were recorded at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, and four others at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Indeed, the final offerings on the album, “The Symbol,” was apparently inspired by Guthrie’s own anthem, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” a song that resonates more than ever now.
With the majority of the songs maintaining a steady stride, Farrar shares his conviction with authority and insistence. Those are the qualities that allow Union to remain true to its common core.