Over the course of their three releases, Son Volt, the post-Uncle Tupelo outfit led by Jay Farrar, increasingly ran the risk of falling into a musical rut. The more cynical listener might even go so far as to say that Son Volt’s material could always be placed in one of two files: big-guitar rock anthems (see “Straightface” and “Drown”) and mid-tempo roots ballads (“Tear Stained Eye” and “No More Parades”). While Farrar hasn’t completely broken those molds on his solo debut, Sebastopol, he does deliver his most ambitious sonic exploits to date. The album seems to pick up where “Blind Hope”– the relatively free-form closer from 1998’s Wide Spring Tremolo (and a song that might have wandered off Joe Henry’s Trampoline)–left off. Most likely this is because Farrar was–for the first time–entering the studio without a band in tow. The songs on Sebastopol were built in the studio, with the members of a rotating and talented guest list helping with the construction.
On the album-opening “Feel Free,” Superchunk’s Jon Wurster (splitting drum duties on the album with Matt Pence of Centro-matic, another dynamic drummer), pounds out a martial jig behind what sounds like the muted sound of a carnival midway. “Damaged Son” is rock music in Cinemascope, thanks to the interaction between Farrar’s acoustic guitar and Flaming Lipper Steve Drozd’s sweeping keyboards, and “Feedkill Chain” presents itself as the even more adventurous second cousin of “Blind Hope.” Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are the hired guns on the dusty “Barstow,” with the former’s old-soul harmonies and the latter’s lap steel serving as perfect traveling companions for Farrar’s road-wise vocals. The cut that most effectively brings everything together–music, words, and atmosphere–is “Outside the Door,” which finds Farrar, ex-Bottle Rocket bassist Tom Ray and slide guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps working as a moody, drumless trio.
If you’re the type that likes to wrestle with lyrics, Farrar has always been happy to provide plenty of dense word walls for you to pick apart, brick by cryptic brick. Much of Sebastopol continues to support the theory that Farrar–whose past efforts are peppered with “catch words filled with infection” and “hailstone halos”–constructs lines based solely on how the words sound together, narrative be damned. (As the story goes, that was the simple origin of the Son Volt name.) What exactly is a “feedkill chain,” for instance? Even the “Caught between, between two worlds/Don’t wanna be, don’t wanna be fenced in” opening of “Voodoo Candle,” one of the more straightforward sentiments on the album (and bound to be the most quoted) is open to many interpretations and speculations. And you can bet that’s just the way Jay Farrar wants it.