The Search is the second release since Jay Farrar reformed Son Volt with new members back in 2004. He told Daily Camera, “This time around I had a lot more songs to work with — there were 22 that we recorded in the studio — so I think just instinctively we were going for more variety this time around. And certainly the addition of Derry deBorja on keyboards has added a different texture and sort of allowed things to move in different directions.”
They achieved their goal, matching the emotions of the lyrics with the music accompaniment. This is evident from the album’s first track, “Slow Hearse.” It opens with a plaintive piano line and the refrain of “Feels like driving around in a slow hearse” repeated. Joining the mix are odd studio sound effects signaling the band is going to take the listener on a magical mystery tour through the studio.
A sax and trumpet herald the next track, “The Picture,” further punctuating the band’s move away from its alt-county beginning. It’s a look at a world gone wild, “Hurricanes in December – earthquakes in the heartland,” although it doesn’t seem that different from ours with the line “When war is for profit and profit is war”. The journey may seem dark, but the destination will be worth it if mercy is found waiting.
“Underground Dream” has a big expanse of strings that augment the sound with a great melody. According to Farrar, “The lyric acknowledges living in a world of conservative cowboy ideologies.” “Circadian Rhythm” has a great backwards guitar loop periodically running throughout. It sounds like something is stuck as it repeats, a perfect aural representation of the indecision the narrator “can’t stand anymore.”
“Adrenaline and Heresy” is a piano ballad, reminiscent of solo John Lennon, about a slow break-up, where people have “been hanging on for so long.” The breaking point is reached and made known by brutal, gut-wrenching lines, “She said I still love you/ I don’t know if I want to spend the/ rest of my time with you.” Yet, the narrator takes it well. The drums kick in hard at the song’s close, like a march, as the refrain “High on adrenaline/ It’s a new day” is repeated. Obviously, the narrator wasn’t surprised by the outcome and is ready to finally move on to the next adventure.
Though it’s not all wild soundscapes as half the tracks are without studio gimmickry. There are a few rock ‘n’ roll songs, such as “Satellite,” and the music and subject matter of the last few tracks will sound familiar to fans of Farrar’s previous work. “Methamphetamine” is led by guest musician Eric Heywood’s pedal steel guitar and presents the most straightforward story of Farrar’s lyrics. It’s a lonely, dusty tale of an addict, working the night shift somewhere, after blowing “a killer job in a backup band”. He’s “healthy now, but wonder if he’ll “ever be free” of the drug’s hold. “Highways and Cigarettes” finds Farrar joined by Shannon McNally on the vocals. They extol the virtues of “living out these American late night blues,” following the road where it takes you. The album closes with the uplifting “Phosphate Skin” with the message that “It can only get better from here/ Don’t have any fear.” It’s a wonderful sentiment for all.
A Deluxe Edition of The Search is available exclusively through iTunes featuring all 22 songs from the recoding sessions. For those who already own the CD, the eight extra tracks available separately.