The return of Son Volt.

[I'm going to do something a little different here. All of this is entirely the product of my imagination.]

Graduating in the summer is a fundamentally lonely thing. At least, that's how he felt as he packed up the last of his stuff the morning after his own graduation. He was in a dorm room, but the dorm itself was mostly empty, as it had been for the past month and a half. Lacking half a dozen stray credits, he'd stayed the extra six weeks to finish up and get his degree rather than come back for another full semester in the fall. However, none of his friends had stuck around, and he hadn't met anyone during the summer session to hang around with, so it had been a lonely few weeks.

Of course, he knew part of that had been his own fault, for spending so much time alone in his room, even when there wasn't any studying that he needed to do. But even when he had gone out, the campus had been empty for the most part, making him feel almost like he was trapped in some post-apocalyptic horror film; the last man alive, walking around in the ruins of a civilization that no longer existed.

That feeling went away when he left the campus and drove into the city, a dozen or so miles to the south. He'd been going down there whenever he could afford to, seeing bands play in clubs and hitting up record and book stores at every opportunity. He'd just been down at the record store earlier that week; in fact, it had been the night after his last exam. His parents would be driving into town the next day to witness his graduation and take him out to dinner in some sort of celebration, and he'd felt the need to do something that would make him happy the night before, as any encounter with his parents was bound to be wearing.

He'd never gotten along but so well with his family, but things were getting worse of late. His degree was in creative writing, a subject that he was passionate about, but that his parents saw as a waste of time. He had no idea what he was going to do with the degree, and his post-graduation plans at this point extended no farther than moving back in with his parents and seeing where things went from there. A small part of his mind was drawn towards the romantic idea that he would write a novel while living in his parents' basement and sell it in six months, but the rest of his brain knew that planning for this was not only farfetched but impractical and ultimately dangerous. Besides, he knew for sure that his parents would be expecting to be paid rent as soon as he found a job, and lately his father had even been dropping dark hints about the military. Surviving off of his writing, unless he got extraordinarily lucky, was just not going to be possible.

Sure enough, all of this combined had been enough to make his graduation day quite a chore. He'd had a couple extra days before he had to be out of the dorms, and rather than accept the moving-out help his parents had offered, he'd told them that he had a few things still to take care of around campus, and had sent them on their way. That had been a lie. In reality, his time with them had been enough to make him realize that moving back in with them was going to be brazen hell, and he just wanted to take advantage of his last couple of days without them around. He'd spent most of the time after they left lying in bed, reading books or just staring at the ceiling, until the night before he had to be out when he'd suddenly realized how little time he had left, and had frantically packed almost everything he owned within the span of two hours.

Now, with only hours left until he had to be out of the dorms, he was taking care of the last few things that needed to be done--getting his toothbrush and toothpaste out of the bathroom, stripping the sheets off his bed, unplugging his alarm clock. He carried everything out to the car in three trips, took a last look around the room to make sure he wasn't forgetting anything, and walked out to the car with his backpack and laundry bag, leaving the room's door hanging open.

The record store bag from a few days before sat on his passenger side floorboard. He'd taken most of the stuff he'd bought that day out when he got home, but he'd left one CD in it, awaiting his trip home. It was the newest Son Volt album, "Okemah and the Melody of Riot." He'd loved "Trace" when he first heard it, thought "Straightaways" was decent, and had enjoyed singer/guitarist Jay Farrar's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, but Son Volt's third album, "Wide Swing Tremolo", had been a major letdown, and while Farrar's solo work in recent years wasn't bad, it wasn't anywhere near the sort of thing that Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo had done. He enjoyed Wilco's music, but with Jeff Tweedy and company turning more and more with each album into the American version of Radiohead, they too were no longer filling the hole that Uncle Tupelo's breakup and Son Volt's subsequent straying from their original path had left.

Despite all of that, when he'd read some of the initial reviews of "Okemah and the Melody of Riot", he'd found himself getting his hopes up. And when he found it on sale for $12 at the record store earlier that week, he'd been unable to restrain himself. He knew there was a possibility that it would be a letdown, but if it was anywhere near as good as people were saying, then it would be the perfect music for the drive back to his parents' house, so he'd been saving it for this very moment.

With the car in neutral, he tore off the shrinkwrap, threw it into the now-empty bag on the floorboard, and slid the disc into his car stereo as he turned out of the dorm parking lot. The first song started to play as he drove through campus and the small town that surrounded it. By the time the verse began, he was floored. He'd expected decent, and hoped for good, but this was positively amazing. If the rest of the album could hold up to the first minute, this was going to be the best Son Volt record since "Trace."

He checked the album cover, and saw that the first song was called "Bandages and Scars". The lyrics were hitting quite close to home as he left town and turned onto the two-lane state highway that would eventually bring him to his parents' house.

"Can't taste holy water,
Can't find it in the well,
Been doing a lot of thinking,
Thinking about hell.
Been thinking about the ozone,
Thinking about lead.
Thinking about the future,
And what to do then..."

He knew Farrar was singing about the situation in America these days with politics and the environment, but he couldn't help but hear some of his own dilemma in those words as well. The political connotations struck him as well; he had a couple of friends in the military who were stationed in Iraq, who sent regular bulletins out to their mutual friends through the internet. He couldn't help but worry every time more than a week or so went by without hearing from them, and sometimes he even worried when he did hear from them. He hated that guys he cared about were risking their lives to fight a war that he saw as pointless and against everything America meant to him. His own father seemed completely oblivious to all of this, and kept hinting that the military would be a good career option for him, that guys in the military made good money. He couldn't imagine any career that he would want less.

The next song on the Son Volt record quelled any fears he might have had that the first song would be far better than the rest (which was something he'd always felt about "Straightaways", and its first song, "Caryatid Easy"). "Afterglow 61" made oblique reference to Bob Dylan and had the perfect sound for driving, a mix of country's mournful tones and straight-up rock n' roll power chording. As he drove past small farms and through wooded areas, it was the perfect soundtrack.

In fact, it was a beautiful day, with the sun shining warmly down on the rural areas that this secondary road took him through. There was an interstate highway a few miles to the south of where he was that could take him to the same place a little quicker, but he'd always liked driving this scenic route a bit better, even if he did have to drive a bit slower and stop at the occasional stoplight or railroad crossing. Interstate driving always looked pretty much the same, but this drive showed him a lot of things that were worth looking at.

He wasn't in the greatest of moods, though, on the whole. Listening to Son Volt was pleasant, and with every new song just as good as the one before, he was finding himself falling in love with their new album. But it was also making him feel nostalgic pangs that were almost regretful in nature. He found his thoughts drifting back to his high school days, before he had a driver's license, back when he'd ride his bike through the rural areas surrounding the house where he grew up. Cassettes had been his music medium of choice at the time, and he'd wear headphones connected to the Walkman in his backpack, which would invariably be playing the music of bands like Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur Jr, and Uncle Tupelo, bands that he would forever associate with beautiful summer days in the country, but also with feelings of solitude, even loneliness. Despite how little time he'd spent around other people back then, though, he'd always felt this overwhelming sense of possibility, like great things were just around the corner. He remembered just how much writing he'd done back then, keeping his word processor on the kitchen table whenever no one was eating at it, and typing for hours a night, again while listening to his Walkman. He hadn't been that productive since. Where had that optimistic energy and work ethic gone?

As if reading his mind, Jay Farrar sang from his car stereo. "Who makes the minutes move? The post-meridian news. Who? Who else but you?" This was track 6, which a quick glance at the cover revealed was called "Who." Obvious enough, he thought. He also realized by continuing to listen to the words that this song was again about politics, most likely directed at the man he couldn't help but think of as Dubya. He grinned and thought about the fact that so often, when a line from a song jumped out at you and seemed to resonate with you, it turned out that you'd heard it wrong, or that it was buried in the middle of a song that wasn't about what you'd thought the line was saying at all.

Still though, there was a point in his own misinterpretation of Farrar. He could do the work that he wanted to do, if he wanted it badly enough. The motivation he'd felt back then came from the very fact that he'd been trapped in less-than-ideal circumstances. Sadly enough, he realized, finding the things you want in life just makes you lazy more often than not. You take it all for granted, figure you've got all the time you need to do the things you want to do, and then one day time runs out and you haven't done anything. This was a depressing thought, but no less true for all that. He was no longer a kid, and was getting close to his mid-twenties now, but sometimes he felt like he knew less than ever.

Jay Farrar, he thought, had to be in at least his mid-thirties, but there were points where he listened to Farrar's music and felt like the man was just as confused and uncertain as he was. He couldn't decide if this was comforting or frightening. His thoughts drifted as the song "Medication" flowed slowly out of his car's speakers. The previous seven songs on "Okemah and the Melody of Riot" had seemed like a return to the original idea he'd had about what constituted "alt-country", back when he'd only heard the first two Uncle Tupelo albums and was under the impression that it was more indie rock than anything else, and that the country influences were kept to a minimum. This had been the one misgiving he'd had about "Okemah" so far, that Farrar was so into getting back with a band that he'd forgotten about his previous inclinations towards the occasional rootsy, acoustic-based track. "Medication" showed him that this hadn't happened, as it was built on a softly strummed acoustic riff and topped it with what sounded like mandolin, banjo, and acoustic slide. He figured he could open the CD case and figure out for sure, but this seemed like a foolish thing to do while driving. The next song, which had the righteous title "6-String Belief" and the chorus "rock n roll around my head, alive and kicking", went right back to the rocking, but it was good to know that Farrar still had the acoustic hillbilly stylings up his sleeve to pull out on occasion.

In fact, he thought, it seemed like Farrar felt he'd given the acoustic stuff short shrift on the earlier part of the album, because now he was trying to make up for it. "Gramophone" was another partly acoustic track with mandolin floating through it, as well as an organ that gave the song an almost spiritual feel. He nodded his head in time with the song's relaxed tempo as he crossed the county line that meant he was almost halfway there. He didn't look forward to getting home, and even thought he might just drive around the area around where his parents lived for a while when he got there. He wanted to get acquainted with the old back roads that he'd driven on countless bored weekend afternoons during his senior year of high school, and it would offer the perfect opportunity to think about things for a while, as well as to listen to this Son Volt album on repeat a few more times, which he definitely intended to do.

The last song, "World Waits For You," was actually two tracks, he noticed. First, a four-minute regular version, then a two-minute reprise following directly after. He was used to reprises being at the end of albums, but usually they referred back to as song from far earlier in the album, not the one immediately preceding them. He wondered what was going on there. The minimalist main version of the song featured Farrar's voice, a piano, some echoing guitar feedback, and nothing else. Despite the sparse instrumentation, he found that most of Farrar's vocals disappeared into mumbling indistinctions. What stood out for him was the chorus, which was just the title repeated over and over. For perhaps the tenth time while listening to this album, he felt like Farrar was looking through the speakers and singing directly to him. And then the song switched from the regular version to the reprise, which was less like a track change and more like a sudden late entrance by the rest of Son Volt on a final round of the chorus. Lead slide guitar, powerful drumming, and mellotron flourishes built the entire thing to a stirring climax. "There's a message here," he thought. "It's hard to know what to do in the face of all the world's problems. Jay knows this. And he knows he doesn't have all the answers. But he also knows that nothing's gonna get better if we don't try, and if we do make some sort of effort, we just might be able to make some positive change. No matter how slight it turns out to be in the end, it's worth it."

In his head, he knew that all of this applied to himself as well. "I have to deal with moving back in with my parents," he thought. "I'll survive, and if I really try, I could do really well. But it's up to me, and I have to start now."

He smiled slightly and pressed down harder on the gas pedal, as his CD player made the telltale sound it always made when it was starting a CD over.


Anonymous Chris Terry said...

Good work, Andrew. Could be that it's caught me at a bit of a transitional time, but this is my favorite piece that you've posted on here yet. I've got a couple of editorial ideas, if you're interested. Do you have a Word file of this review?

12:04 PM  

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