Cobain-era teens are now parents, sporting wrinkles and receding hairlines; mortgages and 529 plans are their new reality. Those adults who have remained musically inclined are more likely to talk to their doctor about myriad maladies than smash their head on a punk rock. Thank goodness Lou Barlow has returned to soundtrack the onset of middle age life.
Always a reliable stand-in to narrate life’s heartbreaks, Barlow best embraced the lo-fi aesthetic he shared with fellow ’90s auteurs Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) and Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) to mine internal emotions with his post-Dinosaur Jr. outlet Sebadoh. It’s doubtful you’d find any Pollard or Malkmus-penned song on a post-breakup mix tape from that era. Retiring such teen sentiments on Brace the Wave — his first solo outing since 2009’s Goodnight Unknown — Barlow strips down to a spartan folk that approaches a Will Oldham level of introspection.
Filled with the same echoes that pervade the hook-laden “Moving”, Brace the Wave creaks and moans through days good and bad, Barlow employing only a detuned ukulele, acoustic guitar and minimal synths to both exorcise and hold at bay the beasts within. Negating the past with the simple line, “The story of my innocence is brief”, on the pastoral “Redeemed”, Barlow maintains a state of manic repose as on the throbbing “Nerve” and melodious “Lazy”, uttering, “Friendly neglect no longer protects my heart / Filling a pocket with scars / Only weighs me down”.
Offsetting the premature frailty of “Pulse”, embattled sentimentality of “Wave” and navel-gazing of “C & E”, positing closer “Repeat” ranks among Barlow’s best musical moments. No longer “bending backwards” over “memories … made of razor blades”, the nine songs of Brace the Wave are meditations on aging, isolation and regret. In true Barlow fashion, one foot moves forward as the other hesitantly toes a threshold that shall forever close.
Maintaining a punk approach, Brace the Wave was partially written and recorded on the fly with Dinosaur Jr. producer Justin Pizzoferrato, its poignant urgency proving refreshing. An exercise in guile, Barlow tempers verbal emotion with instrumental restraint; such juxtaposition pits the yin of youth against the yang of experience, with the latter proving victorious. We can take Barlow at his word when he proclaims, “I changed because I said so”.