For an act so deeply obsessed with documenting the pitfalls of romance in song, it makes sense that Sebadoh's first album of the 21st century chronicles the finale of co-leader Lou Barlow's quarter century-long relationship and marriage. While "Defend Yourself" (Joyful Noise) is probably the band's strongest effort since 1994's "Bakesale," it is both peculiar and exhilarating how Barlow and Jason Lowenstein (Sebadoh's other primary songwriter) don't sound remarkably different—in lyrical stance or in the melodic, jangly guitar grind that has always defined the band—than they did 20 years ago.
"It's still tortured—it's a Sebadoh record," Barlow says about "Defend Yourself," with a self-aware-don't-care chuckle. "It bears the mark of a very transitional time. And I hear a lot of transition in the songs and we're still just a little heavy, you know? I was writing these songs during the dissolution of a 25-year relationship, and Jason's songs ... I love them, and I relate to them. We've just been puzzling over the same things for ages."
The statement raises two issues, neither of which were clarified by Barlow: The predominant theme in his body of work that is now bookended by the beginning and end of this relationship has rarely deviated from the sentiment laid out in 1993's "Soul and Fire"—"I think our love is coming to an end," he sang—and the fact that the new record's emotional sophistication isn't a step forward from previous, but notably affecting, quasi-adolescent grasp of love's complexities that also permeate nearly all of Sebadoh's output. Has Barlow not evolved personally throughout the course of his life? But contradiction, rather than clarity, has long been at the center of a band that's more a democratic collective, with each songwriter represented as equally as possible.
"We've always functioned as a backing band for whoever writes the song," Barlow explains. "I give myself to Jason's vision and he does the same with mine. I wouldn't call it yin and yang, but there is a swing between the two, the two musical identities."
As for clarity, Sebadoh's greatest success was in its uneven, ultra-prolific releases. Noisy, aimless stoner in-jokes coexisted with lovely folk-pop, wrapped in layers of hiss from the band's preferred method of lo-fi, amateurish recording style. But what was lost in sonic fidelity was an intimacy that has rendered their best work eerily timeless.
Barlow says that, "there was no pressure—no one was asking for a new Sebadoh record. We just took it upon ourselves and did it. ... We had a really sweet time recording it. We did it really quick and didn't try to elaborate on the sound. In a way, it's how I wish we had recorded "Harmacy" (1996) or something. ... It had the same spirit.
"For me, records are just what you do where you're gonna lay out what you're gonna play live. I liked the record when we finished it but now, a year later, I think the songs are way better. The record is almost just sketches for what you're gonna play on tour. I feel like it takes a year or so before, at least instrumentally, the songs really start to bite ... that's when you can really dig into it and really feel it. It grows and multiplies."
Similarly, Barlow seems to live in a time capsule from before the collapse of the music industry, which he says he is unaffected by.
"The only way I really make money is by playing live but there's so many years and such a bulk of work, that it creates a little bit of income for me that's remarkably steady. I have to tour to actually feed my family but if I wanted to just live in a one-room apartment, I could do that. I could make it work on just these royalties that just drift in. It's funny how that happens. I don't understand why I can do what I'm doing this far into it without being particularly ambitious. It shocks me."