The once and present bassist in the reunited Dinosaur Jr. and mastermind behind lo-fi pioneers Sebadoh as well as experimental project Sentridoh, Barlow has had a hand in some of the great indie-label noise of the ’90s and beyond, as well as a heart-rending way with a melodic arc, like the plot of the most compellingly personal short story.
Barlow just makes the kind of music he’d like to hear, and as a musician, he’s a great listener of music. “I like a lot of different kinds of music: metal, ’50s, folk, ethnic music,” he explains. “A lot of people give me stuff: Doug Martsch (of Built to Spill) recently gave me a bunch and I heard the band Fucked Up for the first time. They were pretty good.” He listens to obscure stuff like ’60s band The Lollipop Shop, which turned into Pierced Arrow. “And J Mascis got me into the Faces, Rod Stewart’s old band.”
But Goodnight Unknown has the unmistakable stamp of Barlow’s songwriting: the tuneful, melancholy melodies and insightful lyrics that mark a sure-handed venturer into the great unknown of emotions. It’s a temperament that helped cause Dinosaur Jr.’s breakup amid the youthful exuberance of their early years. That the reunited band has been back touring for several years shows that time can heal many, if not all, wounds.
“I think I gave the wrong impression,” Barlow says regarding the album’s sequencing, starting with the rocking number “Sharing.” “The way I structured it is a little forbidding. I wish I’d made it more welcoming.” The album veers sharply after that raucous opener into the title song and a folk groove that carries through to the end.
You wonder if a song can be titled “Sharing” without some irony in this age, but he vows it’s earnest. “I meant it to be lyrically confusing,” he admits. “It’s a ‘sticky’ song about sexual issues; it’s definitely got an edge to it.” As opposed to the emotionally direct songs that make up most of his body of work, he says this album “isn’t clear at all. I’ve been making songs more ambivalent about things, not like classic love songs. There is a lot of ambivalence that I see in real life, and also in the political climate.”
The songs will catch a little extra oomph live, with Mike Watt’s band the Missingmen backing him up. “I met them touring with Dinosaur Jr., when Watt opened for us,” he explains. “We all live in L.A., and they tried to play my record and it worked right away. They are both sensitive and aggressive players.” They play electric versions of some of his songs in concert, and then mix it up with his solo acoustic renditions.
The mix of tunes on the new release doesn‘t provide much to advance his work significantly, but it is a solid set of songs by someone whose bar is set pretty damned high. It’s not like brilliant rock albums can be scripted. “I don’t have a specific goal with an album,” Barlow relates. “It just kind of comes together and I try to surprise myself.” Like the song “I’m Thinking,” which he didn’t think was the strongest, at first, but “when it came together, an atmosphere lifted it into another realm.”
Recently becoming a father means Barlow doesn‘t have the time to listen to music quite as much as he used to, but he‘s still trying. ”I’m still passionate about it. You have to believe in your work and let the chips fall,” he says. “Trying to figure out what my next thing will be, that’s my passion.”