Back in the mid-90s, Lou Barlow told now-defunct music mag Vox about his childhood beginnings as a songwriter. Castigating a family member’s culinary choices, the protest anthem ‘We Hate Cooked Cereal’ may not rank among his recorded offerings, but the tale of its existence tells us enough about his searing honesty and willingness to wrestle with the listener’s discomfort.
Happily, these qualities remain intact on ‘Reason To Live’, his first solo record in six years. It’s also the latest in something of a Barlow hot streak, following a fan-driven subscriber series, plus Dinosaur Jr’s recent ‘Sweep It Into Space’ and 2019’s excellent Sebadoh LP ‘Act Surprised’... which may appear to be a busy schedule by most artists’ standards, but it doesn’t seem to have dented his capabilities. In fact, this is another solid effort from a man who seems to have hit his best form in recent times, as borne out by opener ‘In My Arms’ - a grateful hymn to rediscovering his mojo (‘this outrageous gift’) that floats by on a cloud of delicate, folksy strumming and effortless melody. Lou Barlow doing what Lou Barlow does best, basically.
On the title track, he sighs about the cruelty of the world while finding solace in the strength of his relationship - a dichotomy that runs throughout the album. ‘All You People Suck’ is the most explicit expression of the former, simultaneously teeming with anger and weariness in a manner that’s surely relatable to anyone feeling burned out by… well, let’s just say ‘recent years’. On ‘Love Intervene’, however, he’s addressing an emotion directly, invoking it to ‘show us the way’ and guide us from darker paths. Yep, on paper this looks a tad quasi-hippy, but the 54-year-old’s ageless, honeyed croon makes it sound essential; an existential plea to forces beyond our control that just happens to be bolted onto an irresistibly hummable tune.
Of all the themes to recur on ‘Reason To Live’, poison seems the most stark and cryptic. From the album’s very first line, it’s damaged a ‘king’, while elsewhere it both ‘takes the pain away’ yet fails to satisfy a thirst. It’s easy to suspect that this all leads up to ‘Tempted’s brutal pay-off (‘Be honest with yourself / You’re a drunk’), but you may also wonder whether this is a multi-layered metaphor, alluding to something that’s potentially more damaging. As ever, this latest window into his psyche prompts as many questions as it provides answers - despite offering his usual warmth and intimacy, he still deftly keeps the listener at bay by retaining a degree of mystery. But of course, that’s just one of many factors here that’ll keep you coming back for more; a tangled web that’s never less than utterly compelling.
Words: Will Fitzpatrick
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