Review Summary: I'm going where there's no depression, but Jay Farrar is not
To give you an idea of how relevant No Depression
is, consider this: not only is the album eponymous with the Carter Family song - a country standard that Uncle Tupelo drew inspiration from - but so too is it eponymous to the genre forthcoming bands went under the banner of after drawing inspiration from the album and its legacy. Too relevant for its own good? With arguments that seem to fly back and forth as to just exactly how much it did for the unsurprisingly titled ‘no depression’ genre and the band having tragedy written all over themselves after bizarre fallouts, it’s hard not to feel like the Farrar and Tweedy show got some sort of cruel comeuppance for supposedly giving modern country fans their “I never thought of that!” album.
At this point in time two thirds Son Volt and one third Wilco, it seems stuck in history that 1990 marks the year that portrays Tupelo on an absolute united front. Whereas Farrar blames come what may on a breakdown in communication, there’s rarely a game face put on for their debut. Tupelo could be seen as a band of two egos yet to be entirely revealed, and the songs easily match the story: Farrar and Tweedy switch up the lead vocals almost every other song and so matter-of-factly to boot – it takes until after “Graveyard Shift”, “That Year” and “Before I Break” for that chain to temporarily break. It would simply be wrong to paint Farrar as the control freak he so often is described as when Tweedy uses the album as his own forum for two songs where Farrar does so once. Tweedy’s tracks are bittersweet rockers, “Train” being the more developed brother to the grittier “Flatness” and steamrolling the band’s country ethic with its simply huge sound – guitars, drums and all. Farrar matches him in each aspect with the semi-prophetic “So Called Friend” speeding by. The group’s work together barely sets itself apart from these individual get-aheads, but the civil collaboration does wonders: “Life Worth Livin” is one of the band’s greatest stabs at the heart wrenching, and that is by no means an easy feat when you can write a song as good as "Still Be Around". Lyrically it is all about the feel; with more simplicity it’d be cliché, but its execution is perfect and it becomes a true Guthrie throwback: “It seems we’re all looking for/a life worth livin’”
It may be a sign of stubborn youth that the album’s two traditional country covers shine the brightest on No Depression
, but more likely it shows the band as (at this time) performers rather than composers; “John Hardy” and “No Depression” almost work in compensation to a band who, as drummer Heidorn stated, just felt they were contributing to a long, historical line of scarce country recordings. Rather than take up their crown as alt-country kings, their adamant duty to their roots truly hits the hardest: “No Depression” is reinvented from its 1940s gospel sound and turned on its head with dashing momentum, even if the acoustic guitar remains what both groups share. “John Hardy” takes over from Lead Belly and does a similar job of keeping tone but at obliterating pace – here Tupelo eventually lose it and become in every sense an amplified band.
While it’s reputation is debatable - and mostly disputed by the band itself - what No Depression
does in no uncertain terms ‘kick-start’ is the structure of Uncle Tupelo as it should be. Darling ballads chase paced cowpunk thirteen songs over, and what comes out is a record of musical conflict – Tupelo may well be paying their country icons tribute, but there’s also an unpleasant middle finger rushing through the album too fast for apology. What comes out is a band too big for their own boots, but too genuine for it to matter. It’s just a shame that conflict would go on to mean so much more.