Jay Farrar has a voice you just know. There is a familiar sadness that inhabits it, but doesn’t weigh it down. It just lives inside it, like a breathing organism, and when you hear him sing, you want to live inside it, too.
That voice is at its most heartbreaking and beautiful on Son Volt’s new record Notes of Blue, a follow up to 2013’s Honky Tonk. Farrar and his band were inspired by the blues, but not the stereotypical blues we think we know – rather a feeling, a message, a technique. This album is blue, to be sure, but it’s also classic Son Volt Americana, picturesque and dreamy. There are detailed aspects of the blues – repetition, particular guitar tunings – but it has the band’s signature sound through and through.
The bluesiest tunes, like the noir western “Midnight” and the quiet, twangy “The Storm”, are standouts for their departure from the more typical Son Volt-sounding tunes like the swooning melancholic “Promise the World” with its shimmering steel guitar, and infectious country rocker “Back Against the Wall”. “The Storm” finds Farrar at his finest vocally, soulful and pared down, while “Midnight” cloaks him in distortion and fuzz. “Sinking Down” has a more driving blues sound, loud and rooted firmly in rock and roll.
In all of these and across the album, the spirit of the blues lurks. Life’s daily hardships and its undying hope are at the heart of the lyrics on Notes of Blue. It is a sublime outing for Farrar and co, and deserves heavy rotation to catch all of its carefully thought out nuances. Whether done rambunctiously (“Static”) or hushed and haunting (“Cairo and Southern”), Son Volt’s exploration of the blues is stunning and studied.