By AVA LIVERSIDGE
Lou Barlow has ceded us a deep sense of comfort amid the tender reckoning of the middle age in his latest record Reason to Live, a confessional title in and of itself.
This mostly acoustic record is Barlow’s first solo project in a few years and is throbbing with life’s fallibility. Much of Barlow’s legacy is in making prolific songwriting accessible and surmountable by any pedestrian with a struggle. And Barlow certainly practices what he preaches and has proliferated generations of brash, veracious music; Reason to Live (Joyful Noise, May 28, 2021) is no exception.
This is, in many ways, a gilded project: A golden acoustic cohesion that reveals not a decrepit songwriter trying to repeat the past, but a nascent bastion of vulnerability. This is the record of a lifetime musician not succumbing to repetition, but prevailing with progressive intimacy with their musicianship. From the record’s title track “In My Arms” and its family-portrait cover art, Barlow seems to be embracing domesticity and family life, a far cry from the grimy Dinosaur Jr. lifestyle, but there’s no trace of desire for anything greater on the album.
He seems to revel in the simplicity and sweetness of puerile marvel, some of the songs are even reminiscent of childhood fairytales (see: speak of kings and queens and poison on “In My Arms”). Other tracks harken back to the honesty espoused by his grunge rocker peers – “All People Suck” seems to exemplify the potential for a softer, more introspective take on this agitation. Lou Barlow seems now to be seeking an answer to the problems he sees in his world, not just loudly pointing them out.
Barlow adopts this “homely” phase with pride. As reflected in the stripped-down, rootsy sonics, this record is proof that raw honesty need not be abrasive. The unoffronting acoustic layers allow for his sweet lull, lyrical or not, to maintain dominance.
All 17 tracks seem to fit into two compositional camps: Some embracing more tinny, swing elements imbued with sitting-around-a-campfire potential, as others adopt a more forlorn, fluid acoustics, forming sound-baths to harbor his yearnsome lyrics. Some draw on serious topics, such as the alcoholism discussed on “Tempted,” and some tracks are centered around a single pun (“You give me paws” on “Paws”), but each and every track coalesces into a succinct body of work marked by a nurturing of the spirit and the self.
The record presents a constant strain between the harshness of the outside world, something he would have previously basked in, and the solace Barlow can find in those near to him. Many monsters, and poisons, and ghosts are lurking just outside, but Barlow is clearly seeking to construct a sonic and lyrical cocoon.
Reason to Live is not shy of the tribulations that come with simply being alive and is not trying to craft a perfect world devoid of hardships; the record provides an alternative to Barlow’s harsher beginnings, one that recognizes the bad and embraces the wholesome instead. This is a brave new world for Barlow. May the truth continue to ooze.