There are few constants in the music industry. David Byrne will always be weird. The Backstreet Boys will never be cool. Lou Barlow’s voice will always have the same fresh sound that first garnered him notoriety. Throughout Emoh, Barlow’s no-nonsense singing style gets the spotlight, sounding exactly as crisp and emotive as it did during his contentious tenure with Dinosaur Jr. Barlow, a lo-fi pioneer, has returned from the vacuous depths of heavy distortion and electronic gargle with this stark album. Emoh is an intense, stripped-down effort that showcases Barlow’s insightful lyrics and dynamic musicianship.
Emoh is an anachronism, recalling an era in Barlow’s career when he would record albums onto cassette tapes in his bathroom. The methods he originally used have come full circle on Emoh, with the majority of the album recorded live by Barlow himself. There is a frantic percussion track driving the song “Home,” which breathes a sense of urgency into a beautiful and moving melody. This warm drumming is Barlow himself, beating cardboard boxes on his wood floors. The simple technique sounds as unique as anything Barlow has ever laid down, and sounds refreshing without Barlow’s character tape hiss.
As Barlow plucks the soft chords on a nylon-stringed guitar, the soft accents of an electric guitar gives the song tremendous depth and makes “Legendary” one of the album’s many treats. This unique sound — warm guitar tones gently highlighted with electric fretwork — is a winning technique that Barlow brings to the forefront of several songs. “If I Could” offers an old-fashioned love song that features rhythmic strumming and repeated lyrics with the same guitar sensibilities. Barlow, who has been critical of the unimaginative styles of songwriting popular today, demonstrates his gift for writing cohesive yet nonlinear songs.
There are other methods employed by Barlow throughout the album. “Confused” begins with a laptop-pop intro before gradually scaling back the electronic sounds and turning into a powerful rocker. “Imagined Life” is the rawest track on the album, but its charm is undeniable. The rough charisma of this song paints a picture of Barlow, gently picking his romantic chords over sweetly poetic lyrics, “My blood ran hot / I turned to liquid / The day I held your hand in mine.” Barlow has rarely explored such emotional depths.
The song “Holding Back the Year” is Barlow at his finest. His voice is clear and crisp as he explores themes of addiction, lost love and mortality. The noisy acoustic tone of the song gives it a kick, and the use of maracas as the sole percussion lends it a friendly and accessible tone, in spite of its dark subject matter.
Barlow stumbles, however, in terms of sequence, style and subject matter. “Caterpillar Girl,” is annoying musically and lyrically, plodding along through incoherent lyrics and musical undertones that come on far too strong. The acoustic lick that repeats throughout the song is supposed to give it an uptempo slant, but just sounds dreary and old. “Mary,” Barlow’s religious musing, completely breaks with the rest of the album — it sounds like a nonsensical children’s song dealing with issues of the Immaculate Conception. It’s painfully obvious that this song does not belong on Emoh.
But the album is a welcome return for Barlow, demonstrating his considerable talent as a songwriter and musician. Barlow has crafted a delightfully nostalgic album, reminding everyone why he is both enigmatic and iconoclastic. The influence he has had on many bands currently on the charts will crystallize after listening to Emoh.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars