Sebadoh’s career runs from side-project to genre staple to come back to whatever they are now. It would be easy for them to simply maintain, to retread old ground and make albums of Sebadoh-being-Sebadoh. The trio of Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, and Bob D’Amico don’t fall into that trap. New album Act Surprised brings a fresh round of troubled ideas to go with revitalized performances. Despite not recording much in the past couple of decades, the band has a clear focus and drive that pushes away any concern about this return being a nostalgia show.
The single “Celebrate the Void” turns an ironic-sounding title into a moment of personal growth. The band works up to Barlow’s changing sensibility, D’Amico’s drums pushing forward as the singer looks backward, recognizing his best move is one forward. By the time he realizes the need to “celebrate the void”, it’s an honest (if restrained) celebration, of freedom and of acceptance of relational emptiness and the liberation that epiphany brings. That track and the following “Follow the breath” have 1990s indie roots but don’t sound like a throwback. Sebadoh sound revitalized here. The past six years have been a period of energizing and not atrophying.
Act Surprised as a whole draws from that energy. While the structures and delivery fit into the Sebadoh mold, these tracks have a brightness less common in their work. “Medicate” has a pop sound to it, a bit of misdirection uncovered as soon as Barlow sings the opening lines: “Medicate, I hate my brain / I’ll cover up the pain it creates.” The lyrics offer little hope or forgiveness, though those aren’t essential elements of the album. “See-Saw” explains, “The cradle will break, and there is no way home / No more see-saw waiting for something.” Sebadoh wants us to act surprised that things hurt as much as they do.
The title track, though, targets someone else, a person whose callousness and narcissism lead to destruction, a not-so-surprising result for which astonishment must be feigned. Those attitudes eventually lead to the person’s undoing, a small that evil eventually collapses under its weight. That’s not a great consolation, though, and Sebadoh has to brace itself against the horrors around us. “I need sunshine to ignore,” Barlow sings on “Sunshine”, a track that describes the necessity of opposing forces to find strength, resistance being its own form of exercise.
That strength eventually does come through. “Belief” shows that persistence in the face of “the wisdom of the angry and confused” can lead to a heightened sense of identity. Merely standing can be its own sort of reward (and certainly beats “hanging… swinging like a pendulum on fire”. “Leap Year” almost finds a groove while addressing the same sort of thoughts. Sebadoh preaches a sort of healthy endurance in the face of pigheadedness (flat-earthers, of all people, take note here).
The group kisses it all goodbye with “Reykjavik”, a sad take on power. By the time the singers confess their apathy, it’s hard to accept, even if it’s a clear move away from the driving paranoia that began the album on “Paranoia”. It’s hard to tell if Sebadoh has found a way through the mess, become resigned to it, or discovered a way to stand among it. Regardless of the path of resistance, it’s one the band takes with particular vigor.