Not to be contrarian of this fact, but my first reaction is to laugh and think of our friends across the Mersey, Half Man Half Biscuit. Or more specifically, their All Tomorrow’s Parties-inspired song, Lark Descending, where Nigel Blackwell sings, “I could have been like Lou Barlow/But I’m more like Ken Barlow.”
Not that the brains behind Sebadoh and, indeed, the underrated component of Dinosaur Jr., would consider himself an anglophile, but he is no stranger to showcasing a sense of humour and with that, I’m sure he would get a chuckle from the Wirral’s finest satirists.
Artistically, 2021 has been kind to Barlow. Dinosaur Jr. continued their Indian summer with Sweep It Into Space – yet another fine addition to the band’s body of work. While a devoted few have probably spent lockdown scrapping the barrel for Barlow’s meanings and metaphors within the world of Sebadoh, on Reason to Live – Barlow’s latest solo album – he occupies the space in-between Dinosaur Jr’s. hi-fi leanings and Sebadoh‘s scratchy lo-fi shards of sound (see Privatize and Over You).
It all starts with Into My Arms. A ditty containing the rustic lo-fi hum of Sebadoh, but where melody always proved elusive in the band’s earlier work, here Barlow produces one that would weaken the knees of many a jangle-pop band.
The title track is, for want of a better word, vintage Lou. With passages like, “You and I gotta rock to roll,” and, “We’ll be holding hands as strong as any wall that stands,“ it’s the cerebral horsepower that has been Barlow’s secret weapon. On Reason to Live, however, it’s not so secret, with Barlow being as open-hearted as ever.
The atmospheric gale of Why Can’t It Wait feels like the stakes are high and so they should be – we’re talking about a songwriter who has never been afraid to occupy the pits of despair. We see a snapshot of that later in the album, too, with All You People Suck, as Barlow laments, “Order the crime/head for the fire”.
In the meantime, Barlow seems in the mood for love, starting with the folk waltz of Love Intervene, as he sings, “You can twist my arm/It won’t do me any harm”. In truth, it’s the kind of Barlow cut that could have ended up on a Dinosaur Jr. record.
Aesthetically, with the trio of How Do I Know, Cool One and Thirsty, Barlow once again reaches for early Sebadoh, continuing his sonic globetrotting escapades throughout Reason to Live.
The basement lament of Paws sees Barlow at his most direct, seemingly finding the sweet-spot for love and being content, (“Set me free and keep me close”), while the pop-infused sequence of Tempted and Act of Faith stabilise Reason to Live, not letting the album drag or sag under the weight of filler.
Prior to the album, Barlow commented: “I wanted to make personal soft rock songs in a way that makes people feel extremely uncomfortable. I always wanted to bring the raw, personal sensibility of a hardcore song into an acoustic mode.”
In truth, this was Sebadoh’s greatest strength and while Barlow spent the ’90s using these radical juxtapositions, on Reason to Live he is still holding firm on these sensibilities, but with a new level of maturity.
On Reason to Live, the grizzled veteran of indie rock strikes a balance between family and work life. What we are subject to is Lou Barlow singing love songs, but without the broken-hearted bullshit we associate with such themes.
Reason to Live is like comfort food, including the warm pair of slippers, and I have to say, how fucking good is it?
Reason to Live is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings. Purchase from Bandcamp.