Three features distinguish the new Son Volt record from its predecessor: the quartet displays greater musical cohesion, using a more complex stylistic palette, than ever before; Jay Farrar's vocal range has narrowed and dropped slightly over the past year, darkening the timbre of his melodies; and repeat listenings reveal some of Farrar's more adventurous lyrics are burdened by clumsy syntax.
That said, this third release hardly wants for memorable material, and the alchemic attitude Son Volt have brought to its uses of musical tradition remains one of the most compelling on the American scene.
Recorded over a period of five months in the band's self-fashioned studio space in Millstad, Ill., the best of these new songs reflect a genius for melancholy - there is nothing callous or indifferent in the references to other peoples' quiet anguish here, and that essential empathy remains at the core of Farrar's appeal as a songwriter. As the set hits its stride, he pays mention to the idea of "layers of means," and it is both a credo and a powerful suggestion.
A writer I admire once said (with some irony) that it takes incredible health to live a life completely free of illusions. The passel of complex risks which underlies that line of thought also find their way into the tone of this record: small struggles with tricks of memory or recognitions of deep-seeded doubt are met out with intricate layers of fretted strings and keys, carried through by ambling rhythm figures which insinuate themselves to breadths of insistent purpose. That particular kind of momentum is spun from an uncommon engine, one whose works run off a synergy which might just be primed to bust. That uncertainty is a high form of honesty and Son Volt's greatest collective strength.