Son Volt’s ‘Electro Melodier’ is the best of political, stripped-back Americana

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Since its creation in 1994, Son Volt’s music has stayed true to its roots in alternative country as it volleys between glum and hopeful lyricism. On its newest album, Electro Melodier, released July 30, Son Volt settles into a comfortable groove, not only with regard to its musical style but how the band weaves the tale of a nation rocked by former president Donald Trump’s divisive term. Appealing to the middle-class worker and beyond, Son Volt hopes to glue the pieces of a broken country back together through a moving, high-energy rock album. It might not solve all our problems, but Electro Melodier is certainly a worthwhile listen.

Though frontman Jay Farrar’s original intent was to have politics take a back seat on Electro Melodier, it’s clear that with the tumultuous times and uncertainty for the future, Farrar and company were forced to change their mission. But, if anything, this lapse worked out immensely in their favor, adding a much-needed air of coherent social commentary to an otherwise instrumentally sound album.

The album’s opening track “Reverie” launches you straight into the midst of Farrar’s whirlwind outlook on life. There’s no soft fade-in or gentle opening that allows listeners to settle into the album slowly — it’s a metaphor for being thrust into a fluctuating world. But Farrar’s signature, drawling croon wraps listeners in a reassuring hug soon after, encouraging them to keep on “dreaming on a distant star” and that “the fortune wheel will roll your way” soon enough.

The riff kicking off “Arkey Blue” is reminiscent of The Black Keys, a twangy, gritty blues intro that’s frankly misleading as to the composition of the rest of the song. But it gives the song multiple layers, the rough introduction giving way into a softer middle section as Farrar warns on climate change and environmental destruction. “Turbulent rains never before seen/ Caused the floods that washed away dreams,” he sings gently, before the same jolting riff appears again at the end of the song, wrenching listeners back to reality. It’s a reminder that Son Volt isn’t all soft and mushy instrumentally — the band can whip out the heavier elements when necessary.

Electro Melodier is not an album down in the dumps. While there may be traces of the melancholy Son Volt has grappled with in the past and no outwardly cheery songs, Electro Melodier comes bearing gifts of encouragement and good spirits. “Lucky Ones” is a lilting track with a perfectly somber yet hopeful synth intro. The song is about the things worth fighting for, with Farrar preaching, “Still the lucky ones with everything to lose/ If we don’t chase away these blues.”

While Son Volt’s 2019 album Union was more outwardly critical of specific political shortcomings, Electro Melodier is like a subdued but equally pressing sequel, picking up where Union left off. But where Electro Melodier differs starkly is its optimism: Son Volt has often peppered in bits of positivity and yearning hopefulness into its music, but only on Electro Melodier does this truly come to fruition. Farrar’s insightful lyricism paints a picture of a community with renewed faith, finally ready to take on the harsh realities of the world.

“Living in the USA” and “War on Misery” are foils to one another, aiming to depict what their titles suggest and build on the album’s overall theme of redemption. “Living in the USA” is Farrar’s take on quintessential America, singing with veiled disdain, “This land of freedom, all can live the dream they say/ With voices crying out and sirens wailing away.” “War on Misery” instead flips the switch to a song of healing, calling for mercy.

Electro Melodier is a glimmer of hope in a seemingly unending sea of darkness and despair. It’s certainly nothing like CNN-worthy political commentary, but the album glows with the aura of a nation hurting and trying to heal by distancing itself from the past and the future and focusing instead on the now. Not only is the album cognizant of the struggles of the world, but it’s a rallying cry to fix them. While the former is common in the music industry, few artists go out of their way to provide a solution to the dredges of society through their music, and that’s what truly sets Son Volt apart.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @callmepbj.