NOTHING less than absolute royalty of the US alt.rock scene, Lou Barlow, formerly of Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and Sentridoh, The Folk Implosion, is set to grace our ears with his first solo album in six years. Good things come to he who waits.
That album, Reason To Live, will be out this very Friday, May 28th, via Joyful Noise.
After decades on the road, a rock ‘n’ roll star in an industry ever harder to hustle in, that itself embedded in the always-available swirl of social media engagement we call day-to-day living, Lou’s gathered himself together after a move away from the bustle of the big city that he’s called home for a long time. Giddy times. Anxious times.
What to do? Well first out, set and setting, as Timothy Leary said. And in a world of illiberal populism and viral restraint – and how could this all not be considered a hallucinatory state? – he upped sticks from the overdrive of the City of Angels and the whole carnival of the West Coast and moved lock, stock and en famille back to Massachusetts. A little perspective.
So should we expect a full retreat into the hills, or maybe a man deracinated from the buzz of decades in the front rank of the American alternative scene?
Actually, neither, quite; for although the album is full of acoustic warmth and a rootsy rootedness, if you will, there’s plenty of lo-fi touches and truth and grit.
“I had been struggling for a way to connect both my home life and my recorded life, but this record is the first time I’ve
integrated that,”he says.
“People have this vision of me as this heartbroken, depressed guy, but this record feels so true to who I am, to this rich life I now have full of people I love.
“The songs culminated over the last five years to show that music has returned to its central comforting role in my life. Now I’m home.”
Reason To Live draws on songs stretching back across the years, some being remoulded from decades back, “Over You” having is roots as far back as the early Eighties; others, such as “Love Intervene”, date from more recent times; many from early last year, when the weird got weirder. Some get new lyrics, some are entirely reworked; all come together as a cohesive and conscious study of a life lived in song.
“This album is me really opening up, and the album follows that through its many different themes,” reveals Lou. “Some of my other work could be almost claustrophobic in its insistence on being all tied together; but there’s space for people to live inside these songs.”
It’s a 16-song set, so there’s plenty of homecoming guitar love for us to wrap our heads around. Let’s go see.
Now, for my money, you can pretty much posit that the first track on an album is a statement of intent – see “I Wanna Be Adored” from the Stone Roses’ debut; “Artificial Energy” from The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The tone is set, the manifesto laid out. And here we begin with“In My Arms”, taking Lou back to his roots; that wavering, partly decayed quality comes from a guitar laid down direct to cassette in 1982. 1982! In opening Reason To Live, Lou is casting a depth sounding back at a much younger self and finding unity. Entirely healthy, and also a lovely song, part-memory, sprinkled with trilling melody played high on the neck, and that simple, uniting sentiment as hook. Whomever they are, they’re in his arms again; awwww.
“Lyrically, the song is about rediscovering the initial spark to make music,” Lou says. “I feel like I was finally able to re-embrace my fundamental inspirations.”
And a one-two-three-four, the title track “Reason To Live” keeps that pace, urging us forward with a thigh-slappin’ bpm, a soundboard beat rooting us as Lou sings of the things that matter – and not without a little darkness, reflecting: “You and I, we’ve got a rock to roll … ” and “We’re still walkin’, through the park / I wouldn’t be here after dark … some people think life’s a game”. It sounds like some demons have been exorcised, some redundant ways of being eschewed and discarded. Lou know’s what’s good, and he can now tell you in three minutes flat of atmospheric folksiness: “Be kinder / Or we’ve got nothing to give,”; wise words.
“Why Can’t It Wait” is sparse, autumnal, intimate and has a really crisp lead guitar to punctuate the strummed wisdom. Take your time, Lou seems to say; consider, to the significant other who wants to blow their mind, wants the kicks now. Don’t let this song hurry by, because it floods with a Gene Clark-like melodic wash that entirely snags you; and once it’s got you, you’ll keep coming back.
“Love Intervene” has its musical roots in 2018, with a new set of lyrics addressing more timely matters; it was a single in the run-up to release, it’s a lovely highlight of the record, and you can hear it just down there by the sales kickers. It’s a song that finds Lou stripped back to a cantering, cosmic Americana pop that’s just stuffed with charm, bearing the torch for the purity and power of love as a way through the buffeting upheaval. “Tide after tide, change is the meaning of life/ It turns any wall into sand,” he sings.
Lou says: “It’s an anthem and I’m not sure if I’ve ever really written a real anthem before. I shy away from declarations, life is too complicated. But, it’s hard to argue with the power of love.
“I wrote this song a few years ago and recorded it a few times. I tried it as solo acoustic song and sang it on a few short tours I did, playing backyards and living rooms in the US. It seemed to go over well, or, maybe I just like singing it. I tried it with a band, too … but, honestly, I’d like to hear someone else take it to new heights.
“The sentiment seems almost out of my range sometimes. Believing in love is like that, it can always be bigger but remain so elusive.” Aah Lou, you got this, trust us. As with the preceding track, don’t mistake the simplicity of it for the median, because it’s a gem that has some of that propulsion of The Tallest Man on Earth, and when Lou climbs the register with power and feeling … well, you’ve gotta go along where he takes you.
“Privatize” is almost mellow shoegaze in its approach, Lou massed and vocally multi-tracked, guitars all a-shimmer and a pretty bassline that wanders in that Hooky way. And since we’re playing around near the punning, it has a delicate and pure indie-pop hook in the chorus, taking a simple step back where another song might explode, letting you come to it. It’s undeniable that Lou knows how to snare with a melody line. Pop, but in a shy and intelligent way; an Anglophile and quietly post-new wave way. It cuts abruptly to the one-man confessional of “I Don’t Like Changes”, in which “new destruction’s on the way … not all broken hearts will mend / So I can wait another day,”, a cry from the soul couched in warmth and instrumental economy, the kinda gem you’d find deep on a Lemonheads’ album when Evan was really on it; low-key and classy, Lou a troubadour with a bagful of tunes this effortless.
“Clouded Age” talks of the Prozac nations we still are in a sunny Americana, all those years on from Elizabeth Wurtzel, “nursing a tingle, with nothing to say / The consequence of a clouded age, a chemical cocktail to dampen the rage.” I guess we can impute a biographical element from a more fraught time, but let’s not enquire too hard looking for a story; wherever Lou’s been, and we’ve all had the gnashers of darkness on us at one time or another, it’s where he’s at that counts. And it seems to be a good place.
“Over You” was another single and is possessed of a lo-fi class that seems to ring down the decades to Big Star and the Faces and mid-Eighties’ R.E.M., and other points in between. Lou says of the song: “‘Over You’ is based on one the first songs I captured on cassette back in 1982 or so. I’ve managed to save almost everything I recorded back then.
“I used some of the original lyrics: ‘I knew everything about you … I knew nothing about you’ and built on that feeling. Since the melody had followed through the years since I recorded it, it came together quickly. I went as far as recording the basic tracks of the new version on to cassette in an attempt to mimic the atmosphere of the original.
“I can’t say that I was thinking about anything specifically when I recorded ‘Over You’; it came from the general longing of my teenage years, but I can definitely say I miss the Golden State.” And he does so with brevity and sweetly a rosy acoustic glow.
“How Do I Know” is crackingly lo-fi, messy, harmonies hanging loose and ragged, Peter Buck at a 2am jam, and barely 90 seconds of quirky fuzzpop. “Cold One” rings like a taut Bleecker Street blues on Elektra, twisted with a tight power chord riff where a little solo might be; and “Thirsty Thirsty” is a seminal hardcore song, maybe Hüsker Dü or or even Green River, caught naked, angsty and unplugged. Turned down, but no way quietened. “I wanted to make personal soft rock songs in a way that makes people feel extremely uncomfortable,” quips Lou. “I always wanted to bring the raw, personal sensibility of a hardcore song into an acoustic mode.” And that sudden, juddering middle break positively grunts.
“Maumee” is a paean to the Ohioan river near where Lou grew up and pulls back to a more classically folky strum, sounds like it could’ve been lifted from the great traditional songbook or may yet join that company; it’s easy, in execution and hummability, and sweet; the melody turning round and back on itself, sounds like it was transmitted from the flowing waters themselves, a readymade stomper as old as time. Does it dovetail well with Starlight Vocal Band’s “Mississippi”? It does a bit, and that’s just fine. “Lows And Highs” follows in quickly, a song that seems to exist in the rain somehow, clouds scudding and people scurrying. Playing out with a open tuning delicacy, Lou’s trademark, metronomic style here clear and delicate in a song with a little of the Sufjans about its quiet, confessional tone.
“Paws”: Is it a little love letter to a pet or something more allegorical? That’s for you to decide; Lou sings from the heart, from a place of strength in open vulnerability and candour. has this gospel-inflected chorus, and cuts to a middle break of warm organ: “Give me light, give me hope,” There’s an Alan Lomax spirituality about it, for sure. “Tempted” is built from a similar aesthetic, a lovely chord progression distant with string squeak and echo, a song overheard and felt as much as actively heard; a song that soaks in. Burrow in a little and there’s confession in the lyrics: “Be honest with yourself, you’re a drunk”. Booze addiction tackled with a really light touch.
“All You People Suck” was laid down on tour in a hotel bathroom, and you get the sense throughout this album that there’s a reckoning, a diarising, a drawing together of life to date in this album, committed to tape with freshness and not too much fuss; maybe in that sense like Bill Callahan’s Gold Record, from last year. But he won’t take a bar of the titular assholes: “All you people lost / And the light that draws you in / Be it torch or burning cross / Your beginning and your end,” he sings, alluding to those who find their way in the toxic. It remains only for “Act Of Faith” to wrap
It’s a record that, in an age when albums are shrinking back from their late-Nineties bloat, to the album of today which can present as eight songs clocking at barely half an hour, seems really packed. On first listen, there’s almost too much to take in, ideas popping and streaking past like a cartoon flickbook. Sit with it though, let it breathe like a fine wine, it doesn’t feel the need to reveal everything at once, but winks at you across the crowded room with a fine smile while more vacuous records beat their chest and shout at you. This is where the real quality is, you know that. As with an album like, say, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s Sleep/Holiday or Michael Nesmith and The First National Band’s Magnetic South or Nevada Fighter, even Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, it’s the kinda record your mate with the absolute stacks of vinyl and the jammy guest list spots will foist on you ere long, anyhow. And he’ll be right.
An album of acoustic melodicism and humanism, lo-fi and sketchy in places, it’s undeniably an album for the long haul. You might not love it right this week; but like all the best records, come back to me in a month, two months, tell me about that evening over a bottle with two close friends when it clicked and you heard it for the first time, really. You know where to find me.
Lou Barlow’s Reason To Live will be released by Joyful Noise digitally, on CD, on light pink cassette and on pale blue vinyl on May 28th; you can get your order in either at Bandcamp or at the label’s webstore.