Review: Lou Barlow Crafts Another Winning Loser on ‘Brace the Wave’
Release Date: September 3, 2015
Label: Joyful Noise
Strumming a ukelele and straining through the static, a young Lou Barlow set the tone for his hushed and introspective solo career with a song tacked onto the end of Dinosaur Jr.‘s iconic fuzz-monster You’re Living All Over Me. “Poledo” closes with a sentence fragment that feels like a tossed-off mission statement: from then on he was gonna “tell you about everything.” The “you” in that line is important; the work he’s made over the ensuing three decades — during Sebadoh’s quieter moments, as Sentridoh, and under his birth name — has largely been a brilliant series of second-person sobs, familiar and mundane. It’s music built to be held close in the way one might treasure a particularly poignant note from a loved one.
Busy with his commitments to Dinosaur and to Sebadoh, Barlow hasn’t released a proper solo album in over half a decade, though his return, Brace the Wave, largely pulls from that same well of wiped-away tears. A salty Barlow starts “Wave” with an early morning timestamp (“Seven / Twenty”), as if instead of being merely diaristic, the pained “I miss you”s that follow were literally ripped from the pages of a diary (or at least his beloved Slint). The effect’s both endearing and off-putting, but such has been Barlow’s solo approach for years — writing lines you can either relate to or cringe at, depending on whether you feel comfortable rubbernecking when someone else is in the midst of an emotional trainwreck. If that answer’s yes, “Boundaries” is a similarly bare sentiment, offering lines about taking “the lonely way out” of a relationship. Barlow trades on radical honesty throughout, which works when his audience is ready to hear it.
The instrumentation (mostly just Barlow’s voice, sparse guitar work, and ukelele) and production also work in favor of the openness. Pulled away from the microphone, his muffled balladry sounds like it’s coming from the other side of the room, like a friend or (ex-)lover sitting there with you and spouting off all of these painful details firsthand. You’re left with the choice to cry along or leave him by himself, and he cuts a figure that’s more sympathetic than pathetic. These songs count on the fact that you too know the temptation to pick up an acoustic guitar and sigh about loss; Barlow’s just gone and done it.
But it’s a tactic he’s taken again and again, somehow three decades later he’s just as forlorn and heartbroken as day one. Unfortunately, he’s also still as susceptible to occasionally using broad strokes, like, you know, literally singing “I miss you” on a song about losing a loved one. As such, Brace the Wave doesn’t really crest above Barlow’s torrential output, it’s just another pre-frayed entry in a catalog of scratchy home recordings. It’s a fix for now, but don’t worry, there’ll be another soon, in one of his guises anyway. As he sang years ago, “only losers quit.”