It’s kind of surprising that, considering all his prolificacy over the years, Goodnight Unknown is just Lou Barlow’s second proper solo record. What is also surprising is how Barlow has, on both the wonderful EMOH and his new album, managed to make music that sounds familiar to his fans but also reshapes his dour melodies into something fresh and intimate.
Though Goodnight Unknown doesn’t follow right down the hushed acoustic path EMOH took. There’s certainly a solitary, folky feel to some of this, but that is usually just the core of a track that gets wrapped in murky bass and thundering drums. So sure, he’s gone before to the places you hear him go now, but he’s never barreled along with the ground-shaking thickness these songs sometimes explore.
Songs like “Sharing” and the title track start the record with a burst of rumbling rock music. Even Sebadoh at their fiercest didn’t have the gut-rumbling low end Barlow hangs on this stuff. Anchored by the Melvin’s Dale Crover on drums — who is excellent throughout the record, spare but crushing — Barlow’s lovelorn songs avoid sounding insular, and his voice is strengthened by the huge sound behind him. No more do we get the heartbroken mumbles from Barlow, and instead we get something more full-throated, assured, and affecting.
Once again at the front of a band, Barlow sounds at home leading the players through the moody rock of “The Right” or the fuzzy chug of “Gravitate”. The whole group meshes best on “One Machine, One Long Flight”, where Barlow’s howl almost shakes with energy, and the band turns an otherwise simple acoustic number into a swirling, powerful bit of noise-folk.
Barlow hasn’t forgotten about his ballads in all this new noise, though. He still delivers heartbreaking turns on songs like “The One I Call” and “Take Advantage”, songs that match up well with softer Sebadoh greats like “On Fire” and “Willing to Wait”. These quieter moments slide right into place between the rockers, as echoing guitars glide over Barlow, or hissing atmosphere wraps around him so you know he’s never really alone, never left to navel gaze at any moment on this record.
All 14 tracks come together to make the most consistent collection from Barlow in a long time, or even ever. It might lack the schizophrenic whims of the best Sebadoh records, and he may go for consistency here over any clear-cut standouts, but there’s something to be said for a record that glides along this well. Even if Barlow takes lyrical risks that don’t always payoff — for every “what we did won’t be what we’re remembered for” there’s a “you love me like a pancake” — but even knowing he’s going to sing about broken relationships, you’re still surprised at the ways he expresses himself on Goodnight Unknown. And it is equally impressive to see a man grow up and not lose the ability to explore some pretty serious heartaches. This ain’t an album about aging gracefully, it’s about still battling to get the same shit right. The way we all do.
And on this new record, Barlow has gotten quite a bit right. He may have done so with a little more caution than we saw from him in his younger days, but this is still an album that never falters and plays on all of Barlow’s strengths. On Barlow as indie rock elder statesman. On Barlow as commanding front man. On Barlow as heartbreaking troubadour. And even as bidding farewell to the unknown means facing some hard truths in these tracks, there’s hope in the bracing sound of this record. “One can break away, ,he sings as the record ends. And with a sound this muscled, you best believe him.