"Rock'n'roll is about a bunch of ambivalent people getting together, hating each other, and playing nasty, hateful music," or so said Lou Barlow in reference to his former band, the immortal Dinosaur Jr. Of course it is worth noting that Barlow was kicked out of that band by front-man J Mascis in probably the most passive aggressive firing in grunge-rock history, so his words carry more than a little personal angst. But if you listen to “Tarpit” or “No Bones” or any of those early Mascis/Barlow tracks, the sentiment isn’t as easy to discount… at least not for their band.
Barlow might always be subjugated to his role in that Kurt-Cobain-admired trio and his role might always be defined by his termination. But while his first post-band gig was forming Sebadoh and writing directly confrontational lyrics aimed at harming Mascis and avenging his own image; Barlow has since come around to seeing songwriting as “making a nice set of words about something that happened to me that I find reassuring.”
Of course, Barlow isn’t still writing about being fired. He and Mascis even reunited in one of rock and roll’s all-time most unlikely reunions1. But Barlow’s songwriting has stayed confessional, a word he apparently hates for its “I’m in Hell, here I am” connotations. On Brace the Wave, Barlow tackles interior spaces in direct conceits but never sounds self-pitying. With song titles like “Nerve,” “Lazy,” “Pulse,” "Boundaries," and “Repeat,” there is a sense of apathetic remembrance and anxiety, but it’s a study not necessarily an outpouring. “Finally I’ll be forced to ask for help/ Cause I can’t take on nature by myself/ But it’s not a fight/ It’s my body aging,” he repeats to himself over slowly pawed-at chords. But he doesn’t sound defeated; just resigned to life’s eventuality. You might think such a sentiment is depressing, or manic, but consider fighting your bodies decline for a second. Think about trying to stop that process - now that would be depressing.
Sometimes he falters in the middle-ground, like on "Pulse" where he tries to make a connection between his mind and body while literally taking his pulse. It's a moment when we could use a more personal touch, or a less immediately physical one. Often, these songs ring truest when they are at their sparsest, mostly because Barlow’s lyrics, which really form the foundation of the records appeal, are almost always austere. But that doesn’t make the record a sad-sap mumble. Barlow can be funny and his guitar is sometimes perky and playful. Take standout, “Lazy,” where Barlow rips off his best couplet, “Understanding is only demanding more/ What am I bending over backwards for?” but slyly adds “Couldn’t you turn around?”
Does he know he’s asking his partner to do all the work here? I don’t know. But that’s the fun of Lou Barlow now. He isn’t the best wordsmith or the most “confessional” songwriter, but he’s writing from a place of assurance about things he doesn’t totally understand. That is not the same thing as being “ambivalent.”
1. [The reunited Dinosaur Jr. is also one of the most justified reunions of all-time; their three LPs since the 2005 reunion are all worth your time.]↩