Returning to Lou Barlow

The last time I heard Lou Barlow’s voice was on a hissy 90-minute mixtape labeled with a felt tip marker sketch in lieu of track or artist information. The tape was a dub of a dub, the original curated by someone I never met.

Experiencing Barlow’s music through the immediacy of a streaming service didn’t seem right. It seemed too low-fi for digital delivery. Also, I was afraid of revisiting his achingly personal music as an adult who’s lost patience with self-pitying musicians.

Skipping through early Sebadoh and Barlow’s more recent solo work, I had a simple takeaway: he’s good. I forgot how gifted he is with guitar rhythms. His patterns are memorable and interesting in how they counter his vocal melodies to create urgency in his music. He lets chords hang longer than other musicians might and rides out simple patterns far past where other players might let them crest. It probably comes from all that time he spent playing bass as J. Mascis wailed into space on lead guitar.

Revisiting Sebadoh, the spare acoustic songs hold up more than the loud electric ones. Then and now, sloppy punk bands are a dime a dozen. They seem to have put more effort into the quiet ones and besides, Barlow’s voice sounds better over an acoustic guitar.

Barlow’s great gift is in distilling the essence of folk music. With a punk rockers impatience, he strips away the ornamentation of folk—the multipart harmonies, the complex fingerpicking, the orchestral arrangements—to reveal simple, immediate melodies and spare but precise rhythms.

I was wrong to worry about being put off by the sad young man-ness of the music. The musical ideas and playing are simple, direct and inspired enough to support the mopiness. And the lyrics are far less direct and more elliptical than I feared. Young Lou Barlow may indeed have taken himself too seriously, but he had enough talent and drive to transform his angst into art that escapes the trajectory of self-involvement. He only made it seem easy.

I think I forgot or never realized how skilled Barlow is as a musician. He’s an expressive singer with an appealing voice and a surprising range. He can write compelling hooks and intriguing melodies. Maybe because he’s so open about his anxiety and self-esteem issues I thought his songwriting was less adept than it was in reality.

There’s a lot of trash on Sebadoh’s early albums–I longed for that unknown ‘90s mixmaker. But the gems shine strong. “Healthy Sick” and “Happily Divided,” are like Revolver-era John Lennon composition. “Brand New Love” is a near-masterpiece (the Sebadoh cover is the actual masterpiece).

His solo work is more polished and consistent than the early, low-fi Sebadoh records but retains the immediacy and the experimentation. I was surprised at how much his 2005 album Emoh was front to back weepy acoustic genius with unexpected but perfectly calibrated synthesizer sounds popping out of the mix. His other solo albums were good but not as consistent—he’s still chasing that Hüsker Dü ear-piercing volume and speed even though he’s better when he’s quiet.

Still, there’s more than enough gems to fill a mixtape. Or at least a playlist.

Catch Lou Barlow at BTRtoday’s Northside Festival Showcase June 7.