Something Borrowed, Something Blue
It has been twenty-six years since alt-country veteran, Jay Farrar’s, gruff warble was first immortalized on compact cassette. Son Volt came into existence shortly after, following the dissolution of Farrar’s former band, Uncle Tupelo, in 1994. It’s good to see that the passage of time and relative niche success hasn’t instilled complacency in Farrar; Son Volt’s eighth studio album embraces elements with which the band had previously only flirted. Notes of Blue takes influence from — you guessed it — the blues. Farrar incorporates a bottleneck slide and experiments with fingerpicking and tuning pioneered by Delta blues artist Mississippi Fred McDowell, while maintaining a style that is uniquely his own.
In both its rowdy riffs and lyrical content, Notes of Blue is an ode to the underdog. However, it’s a more mature and nuanced rebel cry than albums past. In “Back Against the Wall,” Farrar sings, “there will be times of injustice, times when there’s more lost than found.” Although the line can be construed as bleak or fatalistic, the uptempo electric guitar hints at something more hopeful. “What survives the long, cold winter will be stronger and can’t be undone,” follows closely on the same track and speaks to what can be gained through hardship rather than what is lost. This sets the tone for the rest of the album, which continues to touch on themes of endurance and fortitude in the face of adversity.
The tracklist alternates between meandering, reflective melodies and high voltage anthems that demand to be played at the loudest possible volume — all while Farrar offers up blunt truth in his reassuring baritone. “There will be damage, there will be hell to pay,” he croons over a haunting pedal steel in “Promise the World.” “The Storm,” a quiet track which may risk being overlooked, exhibits entrancing fingerpicking, while “Midnight” conjures images of an Old West shootout with its ominous chord progression and fuzzy distortion. The album picks up speed with “Sinking Down,” which marries blues and rock in a way that’s at once familiar and refreshing. “Cairo and Southern” slows the pace with what passes for an alt-country lullaby, while Farrar exhibits his penchant for stretching words like taffy until they’re barely recognizable.
Although, lyrically, Notes of Blue doesn’t venture too far off the beaten path, it does offer up a gritty and unexpected dose of hope. Son Volt took the typical laments inextricably bound with the blues genre and approached them from the perspective of someone who has made it through to the other side. As Farrar sings resolutely on the opening track, “In the end it matters, it’s worth the fight.”