During "On Fire," the opening cut of Sebadoh's latest CD, Harmacy, Lou Barlow sings a couplet that typifies both his dilemma and his gift: "My opinion could change today/But I'm responsible anyway."
Confessions of emotional turmoil have defined Barlow's music and persona ever since J Mascis booted him from Dinosaur Jr. at the height of that band's popularity. After his girlfriend, Kathleen Billus, ditched him in favor of a lawyer, for instance, Barlow spat anecdotes about their parting during an anonymous appearance on an MTV program titled Love and Sex in the '90s. (Later, Billus scrapped the attorney and wed Barlow.)
Such public wound-lickings would seem shameless were it not for Barlow's aptitude at transforming them into bitter sound bites that highlight four-track wonders such as "Freed Man" and "Weed Forestin." His devotion to chronicling his feelings has led to recordings that veer from tear-stained balladry to bruising cacophany without so much as a nod to transition. But to Barlow, that's the nature of the beast. "The reason we make fucked-up-sounding records," he says, "is because that's a reflection of who we are as people. For me, it makes it more interesting as a listener and as Sebadoh's biggest critic. I also know my tastes aren't other people's tastes."
Perhaps not--but it's Barlow's sensibility that's largely responsible for Harmacy, Sebadoh's seventh album, sounding as inconsistent yet indie-endearing as any of the previous six. That's not to slight the contributions of Barlow's Sebadoh partners, bassist Jason Loewenstein and drummer Bob Fay (a recent replacement for timekeeper Eric Gaffney). After all, Loewenstein contributes nine tracks to the new album, and his melodic ruminations about relationships rival Barlow's eight for sheer loveliness. But Barlow remains Sebadoh's most fascinating figure--a man who single-handedly defines the romanticism of the archetypal geek even as he continues to celebrate the punk sounds and sensibilities that shaped him as a HYsker DY- and Minutemen-loving teen.
Early on, Barlow realized that the vulnerability explicit in his lyrics gave audiences the willies, and he resolved to become a folk terrorist, dealing exclusively in exposed nerves. Since then, he's discovered that the bold broadcasting of diary material has also provided him with an archive of his life that details where he's been and hints at where he's going. "Time has a way of tempering those raw admissions and making them seem more courageous," he notes. "When a lot of the things that I've written about--like Sebadoh III and our early home tracks--first came out, people were like, 'Look, I don't want to hear about this right now. I know all too well what you're talking about, but why'd you have to come right out and say it?' And as time goes by, it becomes more intense, because you've documented that time. There's that weird little thing that happens, like when you watch old movies. You pick up on and appreciate things that no one would have appreciated at the time--like the background, the way you can tell it was filmed in 1952 or whatever. I think the same holds true with music."
If this theory is correct, Harmacy, Sebadoh's finest fruit to date, will sound even more revelatory in the future. Why this should be so, given that its key elements have been present on every Sebadoh release, may seem mysterious to most observers, but not to Barlow. "I'm not as tortured, for one thing," he insists. He adds, "It's not so much that I'm not tortured but that it's not so much of a thrill to me to come out and say things in plain language. It's almost like, well, I did that, and I did that really well. Once a year, I sit down and listen to a bunch of the older stuff trying to get some kind of perspective on what I'm doing. And when I do that kind of retrospective, I'll go, 'Whoa. Wow. I brutally explained that situation, and I'm glad that I did that.' But now that I'm thirty, something is really changing in the way I'm approaching my music. It's starting to evolve a little bit where I'm not as satisfied with explaining every nook and cranny of my psyche."
In part, this change is attributable to Barlow's being weaned from the four-track that made him lo-fi royalty. Sebadoh's mounting success has allowed him to make increased use of a studio--and as a result, he reveals, "I've had to re-evaluate the way I put my songs together and structure things. So the songs are coming about much slower. When I'm able to consider the lyrics more, I'm becoming more...I don't even know." He pauses before offering, "A lot of my lyrics come about from how my voice actually sounds on the day I'm recording it. I don't want to be too into the craft, because that promotes something that's more seamless and not as gritty. I guess I'm trying to reconcile the fact that I am totally into the craft and also maintain the lyrical clarity that's really such a big part of what I do."
In a live setting, Barlow's squirm-inducing revelations of the spliced heart cause the guitarist little trepidation. "I never feel too embarrassed when I'm singing my songs live. Live music is just so imperfect, and me sort of getting my emotions out through a song or me singing these songs that are bare admissions of weakness seem really different from just standing up there and saying it. Even so, as far as it being like therapy for me, it's definitely that. That might be the really basic thing behind even bothering to put pen to paper or to paint or whatever--to get something out so that you can survey it and get some perspective or some sort of a grip on the chaos.
"That's always been really necessary for me, especially when I was growing up and going through changes like becoming a post-adolescent, flumping my way into adulthood. Music has always been the thing that really liberates me and also gives me any sense of confidence. Because I feel so driven to write these kinds of songs, that must have something to do with it."
Such tunes have been issued under a variety of monikers. Sentridoh is the receptacle for his acoustic forays, while Folk Implosion, a side project formed with fan John Davis, gained an unexpected following because of "Natural One," which the pair penned for the soundtrack of the cult film Kids. Though the song, inspired by the movie's coolly predatory protagonist, is barely audible in the movie, it has received enough radio play to crack the Top 40 roster. The chart rise took Barlow by surprise. Drawing a parallel between himself and another folk/hip-hop experimentalist, Beck, he declares, "'Natural One' was absolutely our 'Loser.' It's eerily similar how it happened for both of us--how we both came from this really rootsy background, though in a different way. We both come from this idea that acoustic music is where it all begins. There's a real aesthetic or attitude that we share with Beck."
The points of comparison don't end there. At a rare performance in London last spring, Folk Implosion (dubbed Deluxx Folk Implosion for the occasion) staged a corny review, complete with costumes--bandmembers Barlow, Davis, Fay and Mark Perretta wore matching mustard shirts--and taped emcee introductions between sets. Barlow performed an awkwardly noncommittal, karaoke-style version of "Natural One" that recalled Beck before he embraced his popularity as more than a fluke. And when Barlow settled in for a set of solo acoustic numbers as treacly as Seventies wedding themes, the fidgeting of the young crowd listening to him mirrored the behavior of Beck fanciers when the star of the show dropped his dance moves and whipped out a harmonica during his Denver appearance last year.
Despite such affinities, however, Barlow and Beck are two very different artists. While Beck's act is a one-man creation, Sebadoh's most certainly is not. "In this band, we're all in the front seat," Barlow says. "We're all pretty good friends, so we don't mind sitting close to each other."
While democracy of this type leads to wildly uneven discs, Barlow believes that the liberty, equality and fraternity that come with being in Sebadoh don't imply much compromise. "I write a song and teach it to Jason and Bob, and I'm fairly exacting about what I want," Barlow reveals. But he's quick to remark, in a manner that proves he won't soon lose his title as rock's most sensitive boy, that "playing other people's songs, for me, is necessary. I'm realizing as I go on that the really great music is made when minds come together. There's always that idea that if someone is masterminding the whole thing, that there can be this vision that's earth-shattering, but the real magic comes from people who for some reason have allowed each other the space to support each other, you know? When it comes to thinking about how I'm going to have any longevity with what I'm doing, how I'm going to enjoy what I'm doing ten years from now, other people have to be involved.
"Not to say that I won't do my own solo things at some point," he muses. "That would be really interesting, but I'm kind of afraid to do that because I don't want to say, 'I'm fully responsible for this.' I get to share some of the blame." Laughing, he says, "It's not quite as noble as it would seem."
Barlow seems unperturbed by the snail's pace at which Sebadoh has accumulated fans and critical acclaim. "We're only now approaching the popularity that Dino had when I was still in the band, in terms of record sales. I've been doing Sebadoh for ten years, but I had that initial burst with Dinosaur where I saw that become really popular and I was traveling the Western world, playing shows for seven weeks at a time. I did that in the very beginning, so it's really pretty easy to handle where we're at now.
"It's been such a slow buildup that I've gradually gotten to know our audience and feel really comfortable with it, and that took a long time too, because I'm not by nature..." He wavers before continuing. "Well, maybe by nature I am an entertainer. But for whatever reason, either I wasn't truthful with myself about that or I wasn't really ready for it, because I've really had to warm to the whole idea that, okay, you've all come to see my band and you are all watching me and I am now playing my songs. When I was really little, I used to put on shows for my parents and sing songs in front of them and stand on top of phone books. So obviously, if I really think about it now, I think I always did want to do what I'm doing."
Sebadoh, with Those Bastard Souls. 8 p.m. Monday, February 17, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $12, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
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