It hardly seems fair, all these years later, to compare and contrast Farrar with ex-Tupelo honey Jeff Tweedy, especially since Tweedy long ago sprinted past his estranged partner and pal, leaving Farrar to choke on the dust of the back roads of which he's so fond. Tweedy always was the more musical of the two, a singer-songwriter obsessed with the magical powers of rock and roll; his are songs about songs, about how they alternately nurture and injure, and for his endeavors he has been at once rewarded (by critics and fans for whom the band is godhead) and rebuked (by Reprise Records, which ditched the band rather than release its majestic, dissolute masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Tweedy, more charismatic and accessible than Farrar, is this generation's Paul Westerberg and Bruce Springsteen and Brian Wilson; his will be the sound of pop's future, no matter how hard the form tries to resist. Which leaves Farrar less burdened by expectation and anticipation, no less so because his Son Volt has always sounded like windswept Uncle Tupelo--meaning, same as he ever was, as forthright and dull as a car ride with the folks from here to nowhere. (This is a man who has covered "Lookin' at the World Through a Windshield" twice, after all.)
He's set aside the Son, for now, and gathered up a motley band of hitchhikers for his first solo outing, among them Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Kelly Joe Phelps, The Flaming Lips' Steven Drozd, Superchunk's Jon Wurster and Centro-matic's Matt Pence. Their destination is the grimy inevitable: out "where the sun and the sky prevail," Farrar groans, as though his head's perpetually filled with flu. But if 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo was where Farrar really stretched his legs and opened his arms to the Byrds and Skynyrd, among other less obvious influences, then its oft-dazzling successor allows him to move them forward, faster and further than ever before. It traverses the same landscape but sees different things through the windshield this time; his fellow travelers have given him a new outlook that lets him see (and revel in) the details and not just the vast, unforgiving landscape buzzing with power lines and power-blue skies.
Just as Tweedy has begun deconstructing pop to create a new language, one that infuses electronic noise with an almost rural dialect, Farrar has finally distilled his vision into a different sort of poptopia in which the restless finally get a little reckless. Sebastopol, with 17 tracks, is overlong by some handful of songs (by the end, it all starts to sound the same: all pops and buzzes) and a mighty big mess, but it's also the sound of a breakthrough for its creator; it's the sound of the dam coming unblocked, of rock(s) flying everywhere. It's an absolute thrill to hear Drozd's Melodica duel it out with Farrar's baritone guitar; a goddamned delight to hear Welch's low, lonesome moan flesh out Farrar's voice, which sounds the way old men look; a breathtaking revelation to hear the man make a monster mess all by his lonesome on rare occasion. The record almost peaks before it gets going--the second track, "Clear Day Thunder," is the sound of resounding triumph, of shimmering guitars and ringing keybs that sound like distant bells and string sections--and Farrar still writes lyrics as though he's tossed out every other word, but at long last, here's a Jay Farrar album you can play more than twice without lapsing into a coma, because, finally, he no longer sounds stuck in one.