When I interviewed Lou Barlow a few years ago, he said something that struck me. It was in regards to his candid songwriting, which often leaves the heart bare and exposed. He winced at the word “confessional.”
“The point of view of those songs is not, ‘I’m in Hell, and here I am,’” Barlow said. “The songs are about making a nice set of words about something that happened to me that I find reassuring.”
Barlow writes music to make sense of the things that happen to him, whether it be his dismissal from Dinosaur Jr. back on Sebadoh III’s “The Freed Pig” or the tormented relationship he outlines in “Two Years Two Days” from Bubble and Scrape. To pore over Barlow’s lyrics, even from his earliest home recordings, is to read his diary, to delve into his feelings. I can admit to listening to Sebadoh a lot when I’m bummed because there is comfort in hearing another person so eloquently emote the same things you yourself are feeling — the whole “misery loves company” concept. If, as a listener, I resort to his music as a source of therapy, then surely Barlow finds solace in its creation.
Years after the intense Sebadoh recordings of the ’90s, Barlow remains a plainspoken emotionalist in his songs. His latest solo recording, the folky Brace the Wave, isn’t as loud or abrasive as his past work, but his words still cut with poignancy. Barlow would be the first to admit that age does little to numb human pains and insecurities — only the contexts change. Here, Barlow appears as the mature journeyman musician, reflecting on his past and how it’s affecting his present. He makes music, he travels to go on tour, but he also has a family now, kids to raise. On the title track, he’s away from them, on tour, perhaps. His musical life has temporarily isolated him from his family, but he turns the situation in on itself: “Brace the wave.” The mastery of Barlow is how he uses his own songs to cope with the sacrifices he must make for his music.
The musical accompaniment is arbitrary on a record like Brace the Wave. The simply strummed acoustic guitar or ukelele is enough to carry Barlow’s words and melodies. Subtle textures, like the synth flare-up on highlight “Moving” and the hints of fuzz on “Boundaries”, help to distinguish each song, but Barlow isn’t going for a headphone masterpiece. Like with his previous solo recordings and the Sentridoh projects, he keeps his approach here minimal. His deep voice, sensual and controlled, is often left in isolation, and the words come into focus. Poetically cryptic yet frank and personal, Barlow has a one-way conversation with his listeners about nostalgia (“Redeemed”), creative apathy (“Lazy”), and the constant fear of self-doubt (“Pulse”). The mutuality works in mysterious ways: He transparently addresses these motifs for both himself and anyone who’s ever fought the existential.
I often feel centered and wiser after listening to Barlow’s music, and Brace the Wave is no exception. It’s his cleanest, most optimistic recording, far from the lo-fi yearnings of before, but still ultimately a document of his personality as a bedroom bard for the insecure and introspective.
Essential Tracks: “Moving”, “Wave”