Son Volt’s pleasant surprise
Son Volt – American Central Dust (Rounder)
In the Jeff Tweedy v. Jay Farrar allegiance debate, I’ve always tended more toward Tweedy. I just have to get that out of the way. And yet, this time around, I found myself more quick to warm to Son Volt’s American Central Dust than I did to Wilco’s self-titled release of a week ago (which continues to grow on me). As usual, though, Farrar’s melody-deprived monotone on Dust starts so devoid of emotional inflection that every word sounds like a confession of resigned sadness.
There is so little musicality in his lyrics, little sonic development. The first two songs don’t blow my mind. The acoustic guitar is buried and Mark Spencer’s steel is far into the foreground and is the only instrumental attribute for “Roll On”. The song never builds tension, never resolves. It just hangs in the sweet spot for the duration, making it difficult to tell if it really is the sweet spot, considering it never moves.
Then comes “Cocaine and Ashes” – about Keith Richards’ claim that he snorted his father’s ashes. Through tight harmonies, the lyrics claim “I snorted my father” casually, following with “but I’m still alive.” The whole song is casual and earnest, like a careless confession, the way Richards might respond to the question, “Did you snort your father’s ashes?” by saying, “Yeah, whatever.” Which is to say, it’s right on the mark.
Farrar’s lyrics are, for the most part, unmusical and unpretentious. He doesn’t waste time with rhyme, doesn’t work on a line until the rhythm matches the song. In fact, there’s a sense, as there always is, that the music is just there as a vehicle for delivering the lines. If the words don’t fit inside it, he’s happy to leave them hanging out the window. Then, all of a sudden, he’ll let fall something at once poetic and musical, like “Love is a fog and you stumble every step you make” (“Dust of Daylight”), and I suddenly feel like Dust is completely redeemed.
Spencer’s keys and steel deliver some of the disc’s finest instrumental moments from start to finish. Lyrically, there are a number of tunes which clicked with me instantly – “Pushed Too Far,” “When the Wheels Don’t Move,” “No Turning Back.” Enough, in fact, that perhaps my own Tweedy v. Farrar pendulum is swinging the other way this time around.
For now. Maybe.