I always suspected that Jay Farrar had a masterpiece in him, but the ever-diminishing payoff I experienced with most Son Volt releases left me feeling less and less certain of my conviction. After listening to "The Search" for two solid weeks, I'm fairly convinced that this is the miracle I've been hoping for. As is usual for a Son Volt record, I required multiple listens before the songs began to sink in, but like a cautious friend, the underlying logic of "The Search" slowly started to reveal itself. This album is deeper than most, so it justifies a lot of playtime, and the more I listened, the more I realized that this is a disk you can keep in your player for a few weeks without growing tired of it, or restless.
As a lyricist, Farrar was never one to reveal himself recklessly, but I notice a few shifts in his methods here that aid in conveying his expressive side. First, the lyrics are more poetic than usual, which does not necessarily mean that they are opaque. Depending on the song, Farrar's words veer from the oblique to the direct and literal. For example, on "Action," he sings, "Break up the old drug pound story, Tortured soul wears an ego sleeve. Heavy hearts and heavy hitters, Bards disease finds the killing floor." These words might not ever mean anything literal to me, but they conjure up rich imagery, while the melody deepens their impact. Elsewhere, on "Adrenaline and Heresy," Farrar sings "She said I still love you, I don't know if I want to spend the rest of my time with you," which is as direct a statement as can be made about a failing relationship. Farrar sings these words with a striking sense of resignation that resounds long after the song ends. "Highways and Cigarettes" is also full of literal imagery ("Best to clear the mind with a Mexicali radio station. Keep an eye out for the border patrol, checking for drugs and so called aliens." He's still very self-serious, but the wordy phraseology and energized interplay of the new band adds an element of fun that had been lacking on previous Son Volt projects.
These words might not resound on the page, but "The Search" benefits immensely from Farrar's melodic sense, which appears to have grown suddenly, and significantly. He is no longer limited by the ideas on his palette, and all sorts of textures help the listener to retain interest. A horn section spices up the high-energy romp of `The Picture," while tasteful keyboards add flavor throughout. Interestingly, there also seems to be an abundance of backward-looped guitars to add a spooky, otherworldly feel to songs such as "Slow Hearse" and "Phosphate Skin." It may take some patience to realize it for yourself, but "The Search" is a beautifully constructed work and I'm finally able to say with some certainty that Jay Farrar and Son Volt have created a minor masterpiece. A Tom Ryan