Two things about Son Volt’s new album, American Central Dust, to start: First, there’s little here Son Volt hasn’t shown us before. Second, it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.
The record finds Jay Farrar back on the road, searching for meaning beneath America’s fingernails. He gives us grainy portraits of Rust-Belt Americans, portrayed with such reverence that one might imagine Farrar as a candidate for elective office were his paeans not so genuine (and irreligious). And Son Volt, which rose (like Uncle Tupelo before it) from the dust of troubadours, describes the land in the same terms as its forebears, and often from the same perspective: the seat of a moving vehicle, with America whizzing past the window.
It’s a seat the band has occupied since it first hit the road with Trace, in 1995. In American Central Dust, however, something’s different: The view from the car window is grim: “plastic bags fly from trees, proximos of cavalier progress / memories and landscapes in triage, disappearing averages, permanent changes.” They find the cities they love—Reno, San Antonio, Nuevo Laredo—“bleeding, but stubbornly shining.” Accordingly, the enthusiasm of Trace is gone; nothing on American Central Dust approaches the invincibility of “Live Free” or the exuberance of “Route.” Instead, Farrar gropes wearily for solidarity in this modern wasteland; for others—mechanics, drifters, dreamers, even Keith Richards—who, “like Leadbelly said, ain’t got no use for the bourgeois town.” The devil-daring attitude that Farrar set out with at the beginning of his road trip has dimmed. His original travel companions are gone, and the road is strange and put upon by unwelcome signs of change. One senses that Farrar’s search has shifted from a quest for truth to a quest for the places where he used to seek it. His gas gauge ticking toward empty, Farrar will settle for a few familiar faces amid the ruins of the America he once knew. (So much for No Depression.)
But while American Central Dust is an extremely dark album, it is also a remarkably good one. Tragedy makes for good art, after all, and Farrar is right on cue with his devastating, axiomatic lyrics, uttered in that unceremonious baritone. The record has been panned for being the same, tired alt.-country rock Son Volt has tread for a decade and a half, executed tiredly. Critics point to Wilco’s acclaimed forays into electro-pop and experimental noise, and ask why Farrar’s lyrics and musicianship hasn’t evolved like former Uncle Tupelo bandmate Jeff Tweedy’s has. Tweedy doesn’t sing about the road anymore; his recent material—which has included ballads to his wife and a retrospective of his band’s sonic journey—bespeaks a man who has moved on from the road, both mentally and musically.
What critics who persist in measuring Farrar against Tweedy don’t understand is that as wonderful as Wilco’s transformation has been, it was never Son Volt’s job to change; it’s Son Volt’s job to stay the same while everything else changes—to remind us of how America used to be, and how we used to describe it. Let Wilco play with dissonance and smuggle out insight in riddles (what the hell are spiders doing filling out tax returns?), and let Son Volt celebrate the Old, Weird America with three chords and the truth. There’s room for both, and we need both.
For his part, Farrar makes it clear in American Central Dust that he has no plans to renounce the road, no matter how many Wal-Marts they build alongside it. “Roll on with the dreamers / believers in the steel-eyed soul,” he sings on “Roll On,” a sedate but resolute tune that serves as the album’s thesis. Son Volt’s America might crumble to dust; but to that dust, the band will always return.