Lou Barlow is an American indie music legend who began performing as early as 1982 with his first band, the Massachusetts hardcore group Deep Wound. Two years later, Barlow would go on to cofound Dinosaur Jr. along with J Mascis and Murph. Another two years would see the creation of Barlow’s first Mascis-free projects, the indie rock band Sebadoh and its lo-fi cousin, Sentridoh. Did we mention Folk Implosion? Barlow founded Folk Implosion, too. Oddly enough, nearly forty years into a consistently active recording career, Barlow delivers only his fourth LP with his own name as the project’s title. Lou Barlow’s latest solo album, Reason to Live, collects seventeen songs that draw largely from the indie folk and indie rock styles he explores with his Sebadoh and Sentridoh projects.
Opening with a lo-fi recording aesthetic reminiscent of something off any one of the early Sentridoh compilations, “In My Arms” begins roughly, with tape hiss and a choppy solo acoustic guitar, before quickly settling in and smoothing out. Barlow’s distinctive strumming style and lovelorn vocals will sound immediately familiar to any longtime fan, so much so the songs on Reason to Live may as well have come out in 1991, which isn’t a bad thing. “You can twist my arm, it won’t do me any harm, you are strong, I am weak, I’m whatever needs to be,” Barlow sings on the deceptively upbeat “Love Intervene”. The peppy song is a standout moment, one that appears a quarter of the way into the record and finds Lou’s vocals soaring beautifully amidst contrasting lyrics that reveal a tender vulnerability.
The guitars on Reason to Live are mostly (if not all) acoustic, and the choice is a good fit since the bulk of the tracks herein exemplify a warmth and softness at their core. But it’s not only Lou’s beautiful guitar work that helps to service these songs so successfully. On “Clouded Age” Barlow overdubs his vocals so that he’s harmonizing with himself, the effect adding a charming air of audio sophistication. Halfway into Reason to Live, “Over You” rolls things back sonically to the rough and tumble, lo-fi feel of many of Barlow’s earliest recordings. At just over a minute and a half, the song, although short, utilizes to great effect the strumming-as-percussion technique that has become Lou’s signature when he’s wielding a six-string.
The last third of Reason to Live includes the album’s heaviest moment, “Thirsty”. “Only blood can really quench me, only blood has got the sting of, conquering what really hurt me, never letting go the pain,” Lou sings at his most emphatic yet mellifluous. Although drum-free and under two minutes, the track quickly builds tension that only releases with the entrance of gurgling psychedelic synths and a distorted bass. The psychedelia surfaces again near the album’s end with the seemingly self-deprecating “Tempted”, a song that includes a Moog-like synth and concludes with the line, “Be honest with yourself, you’re a drunk.” Reason to Live’s penultimate moment is also the record’s most humorous. “All You People Suck” finds Lou venting his apparent disdain for easily duped, unempathetic, heartless, greedy creeps. Reason to Live is concluded with “Act of Faith”, a song that has Barlow leaving listeners with a feeling of optimism, albeit one that finishes with a sustained chord that feels ungrounded.
All told, Reason to Live is a strong collection, one that manages to smartly push Barlow’s legacy forward while never stepping completely away from the stylistic attributes he’s come to be known for. It’s safe to say the record will satisfy most, if not all, longtime fans of Lou’s work. Conversely, new listeners will be treated to a well-rounded display of the compositional and instrumental acuity as well as the lyrical heart and humor that has come to exemplify Lou Barlow’s best music to date.