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."