In 2000, Lou Barlow bemoaned his earlier work in Sebadoh and Folk Implosion as “fucking crap”, declaring that he was disillusioned with his work and the fact that it had left no lasting impression on the world: “No matter how many good songs I’ve written, or great lyrics or whatever, if I died tomorrow, my obituary would be, ‘This guy played in Dinosaur Jr and released a couple of indie-rock records.’ That would be it. I’ve got nothing that’s even comparable to the success that a lot of bands have achieved. I’ve done jack-shit, as far as I can tell,” he self-deprecatingly gushed in the NME.
As far as “jack-shit” goes, Barlow has done pretty well in pioneering the lo-fi genre throughout his career thus far, and even if he does not go as far as making the history books with that, he will at least make into the top five list for ‘Songs Not To Be Played At A Evangelical Christian Dinner Party’ with the release of 2005’s “Mary” (a softy-strummed folk number denouncing the immaculate conception). Crucifix-shaped cucumber sandwich anyone?
If Barlow is guilty of anything it’s the fact that he has often as not been found to write and record a legacy of work like someone scratching their genitals in public: compulsively, and with a little regard for those who are paying attention. However, since the release of his debut solo effort, ‘Emoh’, Barlow has stepped away from the noise experiments of his past and fine-tuned a more melodic sound.
Borrowing the live-band energy of Dinosaur Jr. and the stylistic reach of Sebadoh, the surging opening track “Sharing” bounces along with steady drumming, ragged guitars and fuzz vocals to produce something that Brendan Benson would have happy added to ‘Alternative To Love’. The thing is, when Barlow is at his most stripped back, he is at his best: “Too Much Freedom” fondles his folk sensitivity with a vocal that skips harmonically with the guitar, a beautiful foundation for a lyrically sorrow song; similarly, “The One I Call” and “I’m Thinking” touch upon a openly forlorn theme that undulates throughout the record.
However, there are often as not sticking points with such sadness, causing the album to slip into a musical sedation: title track “Goodnight Unknown” aurally moans with synth-led swirls that sound like a socially awkward teen serialising his life onto a blog, and “Praise”’s lacklustre jangle is a tangled and tired formula, something of a mournfully idiosyncratic nut that Barlow has been trying to crack along with mainstream success for sometime now. It’s just a shame that the likes of Snow Patrol have mopped up such popularist pity with such terrible glee already.