Reason To Live by Lou Barlow

Release date: May 28, 2021
Label: Joyful Noise Recordings

Lou Barlow has always been an artist capable of brilliance, yet he also retains an irritable urge to wilfully create music that can really push the limits of tolerance, for outright careless noise. Reason To Live is the follow-up solo album to 2015’s Brace The Wave, which was quite a mixed bag, if I remember correctly. For the un-initiated, Lou spent many years knocking out ultra lo-fi scuzz-rock with his chums in Sebadoh, before deciding that melody might well be king and turning out some fantastic songs, with actual real tunes and beautiful instrumentation. Incredibly prolific, he also released some delightful indie-pop gems as Folk Implosion as well as playing bass for Dinosaur Jr. Mascis would allow him a turn at singing now and then, quite often it was Lou’s songs that stood out.

Lou now lives in Massachusetts with his Wife Adelle and their three children. Some of the songs on this album hark back to decades ago and some were written prior to the world falling apart. For the most part the arrangements on Reason To Live are detailed and layered, yet the lo-fi ethic dominates. Lou explains “This album is me really opening up, and the album follows that through its many different themes…Some of my other work could be almost claustrophobic in its insistence on being all tied together but there’s space for people to live inside these songs”.

Opener ‘In My Arms’ sets the tone with its lo-fi folk leanings, high on melody, recalling prime Sebadoh, delightful backtracked guitar adding a psychedelic element. The song actually utilises a sample of a recording Lou made in 1982. Title track ‘Reason To Live’ is one of the finest songs Lou has written, in my opinion. With a speaker shaking bassline and tear-jerking chorus, his voice is tender and smooth, like pure honey dripping from a spoon. Lou sounds wounded and fragile on ‘Why Can’t It Wait’ as his voice rises above his usual register and there’s some neat flourishes with the old effects pedals.

The splendid ‘Love Intervene’ is a chipper summery song with more hooks than an angler’s kit bag, as Lou pleads “Love intervene, please show us the way, the path to extremes is the path to decay”. Minimal percussion enhances ‘Privatize’ and there’s an uplifting and joyous chorus. ‘I Don’t Like Changes’ has a cheeky wee verse and some dexterous acoustic plucking.

The glorious ‘Clouded Age’ features a swooning chorus with lovely multi-tracked voices and the electric guitar embellishment at the end warms the heart. ‘Over You’ finds Lou as lo-fi as he has been in many years, the recording actually sounds warped, like the tape isn’t running properly. It turns out Lou actually recorded the basic tracks onto cassette in an attempt to mimic the atmosphere of the original version. The chorus aches as Lou pours his heart into it and the deceptively simple melody is just sublime. ‘How Do I Know’ seems filtered through some hallucinatory effect, it’s dreamy and kooky and utterly brilliant. ‘Cold One’ is basic in structure as the melody is allowed to shine and Lou soars in the chorus, pouring scorn on some individual, or beer.

Speaking of drinking, ‘Thirsty’ is a throwaway track that to these ears is like something Jack Black would pitch up. When some bilious bass fuzz is boked up I feel queasy. To read in the press release that Lou “wanted to make personal soft rock songs in a way that makes people feel extremely uncomfortable”, I can confirm that mission accomplished. I prefer the twisty melodies that permeate the first half of the album so the slightly obvious campfire melody of ‘Maumee’ didn’t resonate with me. ‘Lows and Highs’ weirdly doesn’t do much rising and falling, barely moving away from a mellow flatline. A song like this, used as an interlude on a Sebadoh album would probably be striking, but it tends to fade here.

Perhaps ‘Paws’ has some sentimental value to Lou, but as the album winds to a close the song sounds tired and could easily have been clipped from the running order. ‘Tempted’ might have some delightful instrumentation writhing over the acoustic baseline, but the song wanders with little or no direction. By now, the best numbers have clearly been loaded up at the front end of the album leaving ‘All You People Suck’ the task of trying to stir some feeling. But the sentiments of the song do nothing for this 49 year old who remembers full well the original era of slack. The final opportunity to leave the album on a positive vibe is thankfully warmly accepted by Lou as ‘Act of Faith’ merrily skips along with hooks a plenty and a euphoric groove, with quaint flourishes of sprightly guitars.

When I first listened to Reason To Live, I was thrilled to find Lou Barlow in a heightened mode of melody, the songs bristled with vibrancy and release. The arrangements pleased no end as a loving sense of space appeared to be captured. I did find the album tended to dip in quality towards the end, but hey, those songs might be your personal favourites. Reigning in the tendency to mess about, the focus on melody is most welcome and across the full spectrum of his previous work, this is Lou’s strongest and most coherent set of songs to date.

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