Lou Barlow: Goodnight Unknown

RIYL: Nirvana, Folk Implosion, Foo Fighters

Lou Barlow’s music may sometimes seem to defy definition, but one thing can be said for certain: As one of the more prolific figures of the post-punk generation – if not one of the more deliberately obscure – he’s maintained a steady presence through a variety of guises for the better part of the past 20 years. Starting his musical journey with the influential and irrepressible Dinosaur Jr., Barlow subsequently plied his talents through several high-profile indie outfits, Sebadoh and Folk Implosion among them. Each incarnation has found him mining a sound that’s as daring as it is defiant. Regardless, absolute devotees will testify that it’s in his role as a solo performer that he’s at his most articulate and expressive, and happily, this latest outing proves to be no exception.

Still, as always, it’s hard to get a handle on where Barlow is going with some of these songs. Layer upon layer of foggy melodies, cloudy atmospherics and vocals that sound like they were recorded in distant environs do little to encourage any hint of immediate accessibility. Nevertheless, he frequently connects almost in spite of himself. Shimmering set-ups like “I’m Thinking” and “The One I Call,” along with the lilting delicacy of “Modesty,” “Take Advantage” and “Too Much Freedom,” run headlong into the agitated sludge that blurs the more melodic prospects for songs like “Sharing,” “Gravitate” and “The Right.”

Happily, though, a more accessible sound does emerge as the 14 tracks wind down to their conclusion. Barlow segues into a mellower mode, and if there’s any comparison to be made at this point, it’s genuinely unexpected. “Take Advantage” and “Don’t Apologize” actually sound similar to…wait for it…Donovan, in traveling troubadour mode. Yes, it’s an unlikely shift, but then again, who better to pull off this chameleon-like transformation than an agile artist like Barlow?

Consistently intriguing at every turn, Barlow’s metamorphosis has always demanded a closer listen, and certainly Goodnight Unknown, as its title somewhat cryptically implies, isn’t any different. While Barlow may be edging towards accessibility, it’s clearly too soon to say he’s committed himself entirely to following a standard script. Still, Goodnight Unknown may be the closest he comes to earning any distinction as a higher profile indie rock god along the lines of, say, Dave Grohl, with whom he shares a certain renegade sensibility. Whether or not the current incarnation of Dinosaur Jr. grinds itself into extinction remains unclear, but one thing remains clear – Lou Barlow casts an indomitable shadow all his own. (Merge, 2009)

Lou Barlow MySpace page
Click to buy Goodnight Unknown from Amazon


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