Upon what exactly does Jay Farrar's reputation as the best rock-based songwriter of his generation rest? Consider "Station to Station," from his recent EP ThirdShiftGrottoSlack: "Time is a standard, bruises will heal/Matters we feel, taking over the rhythm of living," Farrar sings, over a melody that captures an aching desire to break free but not before recognizing the weight of what must be cast off. "It's not the end of the world/You can't even see it from here/And I really care about everything/Especially now." Whereas other songwriters of our fractured milieu have written in colliding images, explored elliptical wordplay with even less linearity, Farrar's songs have always made sense -- though we might wish they didn't. The story they tell, over and over, is of the perils of finding meaning, that the most demanding, frightening and necessary thing any one of us might do is to look both inside and outside, without blinking or glossing over, and still make sense, still push on through the darkness all around.
And Farrar continues to make these dark raids on the collective soul while pushing against the limits of the genre he helped shape. He's begun to dismantle and rebuild alternative country, not for the sake of experimentation but to find the mysterious wellsprings and tributaries of American roots music. His voice has strengthened, capable now of a slattern wail as well as a rich, evocative sorrow. Rather than turning to the samples, bleeps and beats of electronica -- the fatuous noises too often mistaken for artistic adventure -- he's become a better musician, exploring alternate guitar tunings, setting his imagination free over keyboards. If you skipped his last riveting solo show in St. Louis -- technically a duo set, featuring Blood Oranges guitarist Mark Spencer -- you missed a singer, songwriter and performer at his apex. Don't make the same mistake twice.