The first twenty-five seconds of Goodnight Unknown sound pretty much like every other album that Lou Barlow has released. The immediate response is that the song “Sharing” sounds kind of cool, but it’s not as if Barlow is exactly tripping over himself to separate this collection of songs from his work with Sebadoh and Folk Implosion. The rest of the album’s forty-odd minutes confirm early suspicions. Goodnight Unknown is classic Barlow material. So classic, in fact, that it really fails to serve a purpose in his catalog.
Barlow has always been able to write a decent hook and then find a way to subvert listeners’ expectations by using distortion and dissonance to create something a little other than the traditional pop song. Given his tendency toward the melancholy in lyrics department, the lion’s share of Barlow’s appeal as a musician has been that his talent for making songs that sound as broken as the emotions he’s describing. Throughout his career Barlow has provided a perfect soundtrack for many break-ups and dysfunctional relationships, giving solace, though never hope, to a generation of glasses-wearing sensitive guys left adrift by their girlfriends. Barlow went as far as to appear on MTV’s Sex in the ‘90s to discuss one of his break-ups, officially making him a pundit on the subject of heartbreak.
There is, however, a point where every artist needs to grow. Even though Barlow is an expert on the subject, there are only so many times he can go to the well without sounding like Charlie Brown. The songs on Goodnight Unknown are well crafted and it’s clear that Barlow still has quite a bit of passion for making music, but the spark of genuine creativity is not there. Barlow’s not phoning it in, but he’s engaged in a conversation that we’ve heard many times before.
Lou Barlow can be a heartbreaking and visionary balladeer in his own right, but his work in Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh prove he can also churn out bracing rock and infectious pop, which is exactly what he does on Goodnight Unknown. The follow-up to his mostly acoustic EMOH, Goodnight Unknown is the return of Barlow as frontman, taking the lead on a batch of solidly built and melodic pop tunes, playing with friends like Imaad Wasif and featuring drums from the Melvins' Dale Crover. Barlow and company recorded the album pretty quickly to give this set a more urgent sound and one that, according to Barlow, is "a cross between my later work with Folk Implosion and my earlier work with Sebadoh...to my ears, anyway." Barlow's sound can be hard to pin down, and Goodnight Unknown is another subtle pop twist to add to his lengthy discography.