The prolific Lou Barlow will probably not need much in the way of an introduction. Touring again with the resuscitated and reinvigorated Dinosaur Jr, he has also been active for many years fronting Sebadoh and putting out solo material under the Sentridoh tag, not to mention his Folk Implosion. Here the artist often considered one of lo-fi’s founding fathers serves us up 14 tracks of unassuming mellowness under his own name.
What makes Goodnight Unknown such an enjoyable listen can, in large part, be attributed to Barlow’s vocal. Often low in the mix, as on delightful opener Sharing, his is a warm, amiable sounding voice that makes listening distinctly pleasurable. Other tracks where the laid-back vocal shines include Too Much Freedom and The Right. This often contributes to the indefinable sense of nostalgia that somehow pervades much of this album (see also, Faith In Your Heartbeat).
This fits well with the downbeat (again: unassuming) acoustic music to which a lot of it is set. Eight of the fourteen tracks here are pretty much just vocal + acoustic guitar + percussion, and certainly none the worse for it. Fingers can be heard strafing the stretboard on title track Goodnight Unknown and Too Much Freedom, whilst The One I Call, Gravitate, I’m Thinking and Take Advantage all have a distinctly folk lilt to them.
When Barlow moves away from the (stylistic) simplicity that predominates, the overall effect is somehow a little less successful. Gravitate’s lute-like string sounds, minor keys and slightly Eastern sound works well, but Praise is less enjoyable, and Don’t Apologise even comes across as a little bombastic.
Lyrical concerns include I’m Thinking’s philosophical ruminations on ageing and love (“If you want good love / Don’t forget to react”); an interesting metaphor for the “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” romantic technique in The One I Call (“I didn’t know that flowers bloom on their own / I tried and tried, overwatered the flowers died”) and the amusing faint-praise of Take Advantage (“We’re having good to great times”). Quite a few lyrical snippets are – again mirroring the music and vocals – downbeat and unassuming in nature: Barlow sings of “drifting and falling” (Faith In Your Heartbeat), or being “way more trouble than I’m worth” (Gravitate), or drowning “in alcohol” (Goodnight Unknown).
In short, then, underplayed: yes, unassuming: yes, but certainly not unappealing. This is simply a collection of well-crafted songs, honestly and simply arranged and delivered, and as such very much worth a listen.