Album Reviews

Lou Barlow – Brace The Wave

(Domino) UK release date: 4 September 2015

Lou Barlow - Brace The Wave Lou Barlow’s working methods, usually favouring lo-fi recording techniques (a couple of songs here are bolstered by nostalgic tape hiss), sometimes lead him to be unfairly caricatured as lazy, slack or unsophisticated. In fairness, it has sometimes been a stereotype he has courted himself. The Sentridoh project aimed at unleashing his every half baked demo, and even at this mature stage of his career, there’s a song called Lazy. On the cover of Brace The Wave, Barlow appears unkempt.

Barlow is in fact among the very best American independent songwriters. His great skill is in melancholy – taking often self effacing lyrics (sometimes optimistic, sometimes very sad) and setting them to sweet, earworm melodies. The best examples of these are probably his songs for Sebadoh (Soul And Fire, Tree, Willing To Wait, On Fire) but he scored an improbable hit with the Folk Implosion song Natural One (thanks in part to its inclusion on the Kids soundtrack), and that band’s album One Part Lullaby is one of the best albums of the late ’90s (but a record Barlow sadly later came to view as a ‘disaster’ due to its lack of hit singles), brilliantly combining ramshackle charm with melodic grace and self reflection.

True to form, Brace The Wave was recorded in just six days and is heavily reliant on acoustic guitar strum, although the occasional deployment of ukulele adds interest to the accompaniment. It seems unlikely now that he will ever again create something as lush and esoteric as One Part Lullaby. The speed of this record’s genesis belies the surprising fact that it is Barlow’s first solo album in six years. Like its immediate predecessors Goodnight Unknown and Emoh, it is unassuming and contemplative. It doesn’t quite have anything like Emoh’s imaginatively blasphemous Mary – instead sticking more stringently to Barlow’s (dis)comfort zone of lovesickness, anxiety and catharsis, all delivered in his soft, almost conversational, brilliantly clear delivery.

Whilst these mostly acoustic reveries can sound tender or dreamy, there’s an abrasive, often bitter undertow. This is sometimes reflected in fuzzy electric overdubs or in the attack of Barlow’s acoustic guitar playing (Redeemed), or with pounding bass drums (Nerve) or the occasional interjection of a synthesiser (Moving). On the opening Redeemed, his wistful contemplations are certainly barbed (“memories are made of razor blades, even if they’re good”). Moving, whilst rhythmically urgent, also feels curiously morose.

There’s at least one Barlow masterpiece here. Pulse is the most skeletal song on a very stripped back recording, the one with the most background hiss, and where Barlow’s vocal delivery is most committed, precise and exposed. It finds Barlow checking his pulse as anxiety over the effects of ageing creep in, physical decline operating in parallel with mental unrest (“I’m at war with my body and my mind”). Eventually, a form of acceptance takes over (“…I’ll be forced to ask for help/Because I can’t take on nature by myself/And it’s not a fight – it’s my body ageing”). It’s a typically honest, hugely touching song.

Wave contemplates the conflict between the need for intimacy and personal space within relationships, Barlow’s voice adopting a rare variety of approaches, from distorted projection to understated near-speech. Lazy features some charming guitar picking and has a touch of blues inflecting an otherwise very Barlow-esque melody. This, Pulse and C+E find Barlow at his most vulnerable and affecting. By way of contrast, the closing Repeat offers a reminder that Barlow can be successful with more fleshed out arrangements – this atmospheric, sensory, slow building song is also one of the album’s highlights. If Barlow sounded a little on autopilot during Sebadoh’s recent comeback album Defend Yourself, he seems to have found his uniquely personal voice again here. Whilst it hardly breaks new ground, either generally or for Barlow as an artist, Brace The Wave offers further evidence of Barlow’s core talents.

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More on Lou Barlow
Lou Barlow – Reason To Live
Lou Barlow – Brace The Wave
Lou Barlow – Goodnight Unknown