Singer-guitarist Jay Farrar caused a minor stir in 2004 when he revived Son Volt—without its original members—after a five-year layoff. "Minor" for a couple of reasons: Son Volt's 1998 album, Wide Swing Tremolo, disappointed fans, whose allegiance atrophied in subsequent years, and Son Volt 2.0's record, Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, still sounded like Son Volt. That's because Farrar is Son Volt, no matter who surrounds him. He keeps Okemah's players for The Search and adds keyboardist Derry deBorja, whose playing is a real asset in songs like "Methamphetamine," "Underground Dream," "Satellite," and "Adrenaline And Heresy." Only his piano and Farrar's voice drive two-thirds of "Heresy"; the rest of the band joins later, with drummer Dave Bryson providing extra drama via a martial beat. The Search has that drama in spades; a weary skepticism and resignation permeates each song, beginning with the opener, "Slow Hearse," where Farrar simply repeats, "feels like driving around in a slow hearse."
He never specifies what feels like that, but The Search qualifies. The album moves methodically from one mournful song to the next, though the moods thankfully change (like the Led Zeppelin-style riff-rock in "Automatic Society"). Still, Son Volt faces its usual demons: Farrar's limited vocal range and delivery have always limited his expressiveness, but he's never overcome the repetitiveness they cause. More problematic are his lyrics, like in "Underground Dream": "Guns or education / the answer's larger than the Hollywood sign / bigger souls can see the writing / on the burning wall of eternity." The burning wall of eternity? Did a goth kid write that, rather than the guy whose songwriting once overshadowed Jeff Tweedy's? Things don't improve later on "Automatic Society": "Cash back heart attack you want fries with that?" Son Volt has long offered mixed bags on its records, The Search included. With everything it has going for it, it should be a lot better than it is.