We all grow up, add years to our lives, and mature in our own way; yet no matter how we change, the truism that we inevitably alter the shape of our former selves applies to us all. Aging is about reassessing priorities and reevaluating subjective life, a reconciling of younger rebellions with older realities. Even punks grow up, exchanging noise and defiance for melody and conformity. Efficiency replaces energy.
In a 1995 interview with Spin, Lou Barlow explained his understanding of this concept: “Hardcore was all about fighting against the flow… about fighting getting old and becoming boring like everybody else. Then at some point you say, ‘This is boring’.” Barlow’s Sentridoh solo recordings, including his tenure in Sebadoh and the Folk Implosion, have all revolved around this attempt to reclaim what was deemed as inferior in younger, even ignorant, eyes. Barlow’s methodical reduction of volume, implementation of acoustics over electrics, and confessional approach to lyrics of inner turmoil all quietly reclaimed naked emotions without the pretense (or smokescreen) of noise and aggression.
Some categorize Barlow’s irony-free reversal of alienated youth’s conventional wisdom as emo, while others go so far as to crown him one of this slippery sub-genre’s architects. The very title of his first official solo album acknowledges and/or mocks this canonization: it’s called Emoh, which is not only the record’s second track spelled backwards, but a phonetic cousin to Sebadoh and Sentridoh. Barlow has long carried a license to wear his heart on his sleeve, being indie rock’s premier sensitivo and all. Emoh, however, doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve; it smears its heart all over its shirt, carelessly spilling heart droplets on its pant legs.
Not that there’s anything wrong with pop-as-open-heart-surgery; after all, songs that navigate the scars inflicted by love and friendship are Barlow’s bread and butter. As such, Emoh begins with a three song promise: “Holding Back the Year”, a galloping acoustic tune with knee-slapping rhythms akin to “Two of Us”; “Home”, a downtrodden mid-tempo rocker with a backing track that churns like a chorus of washing machines; and “Caterpillar Girl”, ripe with chiseled, fuzzy guitar tones. But beyond its opening hat trick, Emoh dissolves into a retread of the same psychic wound, recycling the same themes with less inspired, more pedestrian results. The album’s remaining songs are inflicted with this kind of artistic déjà vu, built around an unchanging, folksy guitar strum, emphasized by a fingernail-aided downbeat.
Most disconcerting of all is Barlow’s increasing reliance on lyrical schlock and cliché: “Mop up the spill with my heart” and “A battle rages in my soul” are but a few egregiously angst-ridden examples. It doesn’t help that he includes a cover of Ratt’s “Round and Round”; the concept of wounded indie boy delivering a half-ironic, half-deferential reading of ’80s hair metal may have looked great on paper, but the result is just one devil-horned hand sign short of Tenacious D’s approval. And discussing the ridiculous closing track “The Ballad of Daykitty”, a sickly sweet sing-a-long ode to a cat, will only prove frustrating. Let’s just say that Raffi need look no further for a new touring partner.
It’s unfortunate that Emoh fails to live up both to Barlow’s reputation and the album’s own promise as a re-entry into a respecting public’s consciousness. On the surface, Emoh is impressive, full of rich guitars, thick, multi-tracked harmonies, and restrained accompaniment. In addition to being Barlow’s most “produced” record, Emoh also showcases a now-infamous voice in spectacular form, its apprehensive, mellow sweetness fitted with a weighty confidence. But the warm production can’t save the songs from a weak, indistinct existence. Perhaps the lesser Barlow, the one who prolifically records and self-releases records in the creases of the indie world, has finally fused with the Barlow known to a wider spectrum of casual fans. Or perhaps maturity and age have a way of altering some of us in less forgiving ways.