Anton Barbeau (2022) | Big Stir Records
Photo: Courtesy of Big Stir Records

Anton Barbeau Records the Sound of His Brain on Power Pop!!!

Anton Barbeau talks about how he is obsessed with sound and the emotion it carries, but it isn’t the sound of power pop that runs through his brain.

Power Pop!!!
Anton Barbeau
Big Stir Records
25 March 2022

Anton Barbeau is at least four steps ahead of anyone wanting to write about his new album, Power Pop!!!. The first is that he already wants to talk about his next record, which he began making upon touchdown in Berlin, the northern Californian’s adopted second home. “I’ve been here six days and I’ve written an entire album,” he says in our interview. “I’ve got 12 or 13 songs. I’ve never in my life done something like this.”

Improbable as writing a whole album’s worth of material in less than a week might sound, what sounds even unlikelier is that Barbeau has never done it before. Although he exudes laid-back flower power, he’s in fact a compulsive workaholic – it’s a virtual requirement of journalists to mention the sheer size of his discography (now upwards of 30 albums). That’s another of his steps ahead: there’s so much Barbeau material, and it’s so varied, that almost no one can hope to keep up with it – not even those who would attempt, wrongly, to reduce it all to the confines of power pop.

So be careful with his new album’s title, which is his third step ahead. Power Pop!!! ‘s three exclamation points are actually more like gotchas, and the title track, which follows immediately on a short, wordless piano opening, is loaded with more gotchas. He repeats and rhymes the words “power pop” so many times – 11 – as to bleed the genre’s meaning nearly dry, finally issuing his verdict on its ethos with this suspended sentence: “Out with the old, in with the old again.”

Meanwhile, he scolds the “culture cops” who confiscate artistic license and go around smashing windows of musical opportunity. He’s not going to behave or conform: “I like my music soft and sweet like me,” he concludes, and then the song unceremoniously ends by refusing to resolve to its tonic.

If that doesn’t get the message across, Barbeau’s fourth step ahead ought to do it. A few tracks later comes “The Sound”, whose very title is a virtual Barbeau manifesto. When he talks about his music, he keeps coming back to this elemental power: “I’m obsessed with sound, the pure thing, and the emotion in there,” he tells me. “The Sound” bears him out. It’s nothing like power pop but rather an entrancing swirl of keyboard, electro-drums and bass, Charlotte Tupman’s bewitchingly distorted guitar, and Fred Quentin’s evocative stack of saxophone tracks.

The song’s deft, insinuating lyrics warn insecure critics not to “list the songs one by one / Then make the safe comparison: / The Byrds, the Beatles, XTC / The song itself is lost on thee”. Taken together with “Power Pop”, these lines can come off a bit rancorous, and no doubt Barbeau is expressing some genuine and legitimate frustration. “The parameters [of power pop] are so narrowly defined,” he says, “and that’s the very opposite of what I love about music. I want music to always be expansive and to be able to go anywhere at once.”

That describes him in our conversation, too. He’s as generous with his time, his kindness, and his candor as he is with his constantly flowing musical output. But it isn’t necessary to talk with him in order to understand how to listen to Power Pop!!!. You just have to keep listening to “The Sound”, which tells you how to listen to Barbeau’s music:

But if you turn the other ear

To face the light the dark appears

And in the darkness sniff around

With eyes of God you’ll see The Sound

– Anton Barbeau, “The Sound”

You’ll “see the sound” not only with an open mind and ear, then, but with all the senses. It probably couldn’t hurt if you also partook of “The Drugs”, an addictive tune that works its considerable spell by repeating the title even more often – 17 times!– than “Power Pop” does. Organic plant-based substances that start with the letter M and grow well in Northern California’s climate would probably be Barbeau’s prescription, but if drugs aren’t your thing, then it’s perfectly valid to take Power Pop!!! straight – as long as you don’t take it as power pop.

In order to do that, rather than counting Barbeau’s steps ahead, it’s better to look behind him. Although Power Pop!!! resists easy categorization, as does its creator, it makes more sense in the context of Barbeau’s two preceding albums. The first of them, Manbird (2020), is a two-disc autobiographical concept piece inspired by Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, Lady Bird, which is set in Sacramento, California, Barbeau’s hometown. Shot through with songs about birds and flight, about leaving nests and trying to rebuild them, Manbird wrestles with the constitutional restlessness that has goaded Barbeau for most of his career not only artistically but also geographically. For more than 20 years he has lived and worked largely in England and Germany, rooting his inner English eccentric and Krautrocker respectively in situ while returning at intervals – not always comfortably, it would seem – to his native Northern California.

No double-album ever tolerates attempts to boil it down, but if Manbird could be distilled, it might be to this line: “Are you coming, are you going?” – a question of travel that quickly reaches existential altitude. There’s plenty of turbulence up there. The album’s searching expansiveness is marked by moments of frank introspective vulnerability that are somewhat surprising coming from Barbeau. By his own account, he’s a natural optimist who tends to write away from pain; that’s part of why he often finds himself working on more than one album at a time (and hence why there are so many). But he stayed with Manbird, willing to “peck and peck and peck until [my] beak is bruised”, as one of its lines reports.

Manbird was so focused and so intentional,” Barbeau tells me. “It came from a single spark,” Gerwig’s film, but the intensity of the controlled burn he cultivated from that spark has still not quite subsided. It left him a new creative landscape at once fertile and scorched, and he acknowledges that he has still not quite found himself there: “Everything I’ve done since then has had me feeling puzzled.”

Barbeau’s subsequent album, Oh the Joys We Live For (2021) began, like Manbird, as a concept album, inspired by living on his wife’s family’s fruit ranch in rural California. But then he questioned whether he had to have a concept at all. “I managed to get two or three songs out of it,” he says, but then he mostly let the songs unfold naturally. The result is a hummable, entertaining, well-grounded, and often quite funny pastorale – it particularly showcases Barbeau’s remarkable lyrical facility, for which he doesn’t get enough credit – but it has a dark glint in its eye that makes you wonder what the fully elaborated farm concept might have yielded.

Instead, Oh the Joys We Live For acquired a new concept after the fact: “It was billed as my pandemic record,” Barbeau says, “because it fit this narrative of domestic life on the farm. If you describe the record that way, the songs suddenly fall into place, but that wasn’t actually the case. [Joys] was made before the pandemic.” And it did not quite get him clear of the airspace of Manbird.

That brings us to Power Pop!!!, which actually is Barbeau’s pandemic record – it was made during COVID-19. Unlike, say, Joe Pernice, who responded to sheltering in place by retreating into his basement bike shop and making the most winnowed and focused album of his career, Barbeau found himself in a haze caused by both the pandemic and the still-lingering effects of Manbird on his creativity. “I can barely remember what’s on Power Pop!!!,” he admits.

In other words, this is the very opposite of a concept album. “Power Pop!!! is the sound of my brain,” Barbeau says. It probably suffices to say that his brain was nowhere near “so focused and so intentional” as it was during the making of Manbird. Its companion songs “American Road” and “Hillbilly Village” make it clear that life on the farm, where Barbeau waited out much of the pandemic, was supplying him with fewer of the joys he lives for. Power Pop!!! ‘s woozy cover art, in which Barbeau is glimpsed through an auto glass hazily, seems an appropriately unfocused and unintentional portrait of the artist as a middle-aged manbird stuck in a cage.

Lest this suggest a recording too befogged, constricted, or incondite to warrant serious consideration, it’s cheering to discover that Power Pop!!!, like Manbird but on its own less intentional terms, is also a compelling Barbeau autobiography. In fact, its lack of frame or filter makes it more penetrable, in a way, than Manbird is, even though what it reveals is less clear: perhaps Barbeau “floating in a pool of my own honesty,” as he sings on “Never Crying Wolf Boy”.

The way into this pool is, unexpectedly, through the frequent recurrence of little sonic fragments, both between and during songs – unfinished verses, aborted backing tracks, and other experiments and interpolated shards – that afford glimpses into the inner workings of the mind behind the music. You can hear what he’s thinking, including his distractions, while he’s trying to make an album.

Some listeners might prefer he had stripped the result down to its formal songs, of which there are about a dozen, depending on how you count them; but it’s the fragments that give the album its character and its energy. They are the exclamation points in Power Pop!!! that follow, animate, illuminate, and even critique both the power and the pop. They are “The Sound,” and the sound is where the emotion is.

One of these fragments gives a further, deeply encoded hint about the sound of Barbeau’s brain. It’s a 45-second synth-and-drum-machine thingy that sounds like it belongs between Saturday morning cartoons, called “Slash Zed Zip”. The title, Barbeau explains, is an anagram of Dazzle Ships, which is the name of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s 1983 album, and its exceedingly bizarre instrumental-pastiche title track. Barbeau’s keyboard-heavy OMD reference is a reminder that the reason he has never been a power pop musician, even when he’s making power pop, is very simple: Power pop is guitar-driven, and Barbeau isn’t. 

“I’ve played guitar most of my life and I own enough of them to make it seem like I’m a guitar guy,” Barbeau says, “but it’s sort of a mystery instrument to me. My appreciation of guitar is from several steps back. I’m not inside of it.” The keyboard is his identity instrument, and he is much closer to a synth-pop artist than he is to a jingle-jangle power popper.

In case “Slash Zed Zip” isn’t enough to make that clear (and in case his loving, thumping tribute song “Julian Cope” doesn’t direct you to a truer influence), the four songs that conclude Power Pop!!! certainly are. The first of these, “Running on the Edge of the Knife”, sounds like (to quote the unimprovable press materials) “an extract from the soundtrack to an ’80s action film until it takes a left turn into a rustic pigpen.” It’s followed by what the track listing calls “Teen Suite”: three more electropop tunes that not only sound like the ’80s but were in fact written then when Barbeau was in his teens.

Barbeau is one of the few pop musicians who regularly rerecords his old songs (would that more did this), and what’s charming about “Teen Suite” is that unlike, say, his moody recasting of 1997’s “Creepy Tray” on 2018’s Natural Causes, he doesn’t update the genre or feel of his new wave relics on Power Pop!!! and try to turn them into something more today-sounding. The drum machines and keyboards do their thing, and you can practically see the asymmetrical haircut and album art by Patrick Nagel while you chuckle at Barbeau singing his teen angst poetry without a trace of a smirk.

That, then, is how far back you really have to go in order to get your ears around Power Pop!!!: all the way to Barbeau’s youth. There’s something poignant about “Teen Suite” ‘s early career orientation in advance of the actual career that has followed it. Barbeau might have become someone very different from – and, probably, untrue to – who he is. It’s not out of the question that this chronically underappreciated wunderkind could have found chart and sales success as a second-wave American version of a New Romantic Anglo-popster, something like a sort of lost California Thompson Twin; more likely he’d have eventually taken his keyboards to Hollywood and made a comfortable living by scoring films, or cartoons: Slash! Zed! Zip!

You’d be happy for him in either case, but then we wouldn’t have one of the true originals of American pop music who is always finding new ways to be original. Barbeau seems to be a man in relentless search of autobiography (and has in fact started writing one). Manbird may have left him feeling unsure of his next chapters, but his uncertainty hasn’t come close to stopping him in his tracks, which he lays down so quickly, and with such excitement to keep pursuing The Sound, that they sometimes virtually vanish behind him.

Sound is ephemeral, of course, and it’s been clear since Manbird that Barbeau wants to leave a deeper and more lasting record of himself. There’s no doubt that he has what it takes to do it, and perhaps even to find more widespread success on his own authentic terms. Power Pop!!! is clear on what his music isn’t, and clearer still on what it once was. It’s less explicit about what his music is right now, or where he’ll be flying next. But he is well on his way there already. What will he be singing when we catch up with him again?

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