Son Volt’s new album, “Union,” is a true sign of the times.
The 13-track album featuring “Devil May Care,” “The 99” and “The Reason” represents the St. Louis-based alt-country band at what may be its most politically charged. But that approach makes sense to frontman Jay Farrar.
“We live in a politically charged environment with day-to-day turmoil,” he says. “It seems like in some ways we’re on uneasy footing in terms of our democracy. I feel like the only thing I can do is write about it. That’s what musicians should be doing — practicing their craft and writing about what’s going on. It’s sort of my responsibility as a musician to comment.”
Farrar points out that “Union,” out Friday, isn’t “a record about Trump. It’s more about collateral damage being done. I don’t think those who voted for him expected him to blow up as many things as he has been doing.”
On “Union,” he attempts to make sense of and reflect what’s happening, while subscribing to the theory that music provides comfort in trying times.
“That’s why I always listen to the blues. Blues is where I always turn,” says Farrar, whose band released the more sparse “Notes of Blue” in 2017. “Music lets you transcend your certain situation you’re in.”
The album may be considered a companion piece to Son Volt’s 2005 album, “Okemah and the Melody of Riot,” which was also a release infused with political leanings.
“I was raised around folk music, and political content was commonplace. It doesn’t seem unusual for me to be doing this,” says Farrar, who mentions greats such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Lynyrd Skynyrd as some of those who’ve done the same.
The title track is “a coming to terms. There’s a cultural divide, but you have to find a way to solve that.”
“Reality Winner” is inspired by the former NSA contractor of the same name who’s serving time for leaking documents to a media outlet. Her story resonated with Farrar.
“It started with her name, which stands out,” he says. “She leaked information for all the right reasons and is doing hard time right now. I hope the song brings awareness to her plight.”
When Farrar first started conceptualizing “Union,” he had it in his head that the band would go full-on political, but midway through the project he decided to throw some balance onto the album.
“My experience over the years is that by the time something comes out, there’s a chance it’ll still be relevant or it may not be,” he says. “I’m just trying to keep one foot on the other side of inspiration.”
To that end, he includes a song like “The Reason,” which touches on the ambivalence parents feel as their children enter adulthood. (Farrar has a son in college and a daughter in high school.)
“Devil May Care” is another such song, and he sees it as being akin to something the Replacements, the Who or Rolling Stones would do, “getting to the essence of what a rock band is.”
Farrar wrote all the songs on “Union” except for “Rebel Girl,” which was co-written by Joe Hill, a singer-songwriter and union organizer who died in 1915. Farrar describes him as a precursor to Woody Guthrie. “I wrote new music to his words. The lyrics are Joe Hill.”
The majority of the songs were recorded at locales that mean something to Farrar, such as the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Ill., and the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.
“We chose those locations to highlight those folks’ contributions and be inspired by those who made a difference,” he says. Going to both locations to record was like taking field trips during which he learned more in the process.
Recording was also done at Red Pill Studio in St. Louis.
Son Volt (Farrar on vocals, acoustic guitar; Andrew DuPlantis on bass; Chris Frame on electric guitar; Mark Patterson on drums and percussion; Mark Spencer on piano and organ) heads out on tour next month in support of “Union.” A St. Louis date is pending.
“We’ll be doing a lot of ‘Union’ songs, a few from ‘Notes of Blue,’ and we’re going all the way back through the Son Volt catalog,” Farrar says.
There will also be some select covers, including the debut of a Tom Petty song, “Jammin’ Me.”
“The song is Tom being topical,” Farrar says. “There were references to Joe Piscopo, Vanessa Redgrave, Eddie Murphy. We’ve updated it — reworked the lyrics. I hope he doesn’t mind. We’ll give it its due justice.”