I’ve covered Lou Barlow here before. I’ve covered Wally Gagel’s Production Club project too. But I’ve been pulled back to One Part Lullaby by Barlow’s Folk Implosion project this week, and I just can’t leave it alone. It’s a record I’ve come back to time and again since it was released 15 years ago.
One Part Lullaby came out in the autumn of 1999 and crowned a productive year for Barlow, which began with the release of The Sebadoh, probably the most divisive Sebadoh album. Clean-sounding and focused, it was a long way from Weed Forrestin’. In the robotic, repetitive Flame, the band had a hit single. They even appeared on Top of the Pops. Long-time fans complained, as some had with every release, that they just weren’t the same band that had given us Total Peace in 1991 or Elixir is Zog in 1993. Which was perfectly true – with Eric Gaffney gone and Barlow now concerned with structure and consistency, the band no longer knocked out scrappy little gems that sounded like rough demos for a hit single some other band might be able to make. But then, neither did they produce excrescence like Downmind or Bouquet for a Siren. The Sebadoh might have been just a collection of a dozen mid-tempo, medium-intensity rock songs with an acoustic ballad or two for a modicum of variety, but most of the songs were great. That made up for a lot in my world.
Then came One Part Lullaby, a record that was an artistic triumph and a crushing commercial disappointment.
One Part Lullaby is brightly mixed, astutely arranged and full of hooks. Almost every song has a melody that sticks. On its shiny surface, it’s the pop record that Lou Barlow always had in him if he wanted to focus on craft and delivery and make best use of his collaborators. Yet, listening to it, you’re left with the distinct impression that all is not perfect in Barlow’s yard.
My good time, I feel all right
My ritual followed us to paradise
My blood moves, I feel all right
Don’t touch me ’cause you’re still too much to feel tonight
I can’t be trusted, I’m dust in the wind
I let the weather decide where my day begins
I’m not a rebel of the natural one
I’m in love with the chemical
Following the setting sun
Lost my patience
All that it takes to survive
Watching my mind and my body divide
Why live for a future that never arrives on time?
Leaving heaven below
Go wherever the angels follow
One Part Lullaby
There’s a lysergic undertone to many of the lyrics on the album, and a sense of torpor that feels unnatural, narcotic. All of which is undercut by music that is more intricate, multi-layered and pulling in more directions than anything else Barlow’s ever been involved with, which thrums with the creative energy of two bandmates (Barlow and John Davis) and a producer (Wally Gagel) working at the top of their games.
Were these lyrics meant to be read metaphorically? Were they an attempt to convey actual experience? Were they confessional? An observation of another’s experiences? Who can say?*
Since the success of Natural One (from the soundtrack to the Larry Clark film, Kids), the Folk Implosion had always been a rhythm section-led band and, since their drums came from machines and loops, a bass-led band. Barlow has never claimed to be a great musician, yet he’d developed into an excellent bass player: stripped of the distortion he often used with Sebadoh and Dinsoaur Jr, his lines were revealed as tight and fluid, with power in the low end and definition when he played in higher ranges. A good percentage of the songs seem to have been built from the bass up (My Ritual, Gravity Decides, Merry-Go-Down, No Need to Worry, maybe Kingdom of Lies) and where they that hadn’t been, he inhabits them in ways stylistically of a piece, but without overwhelming them or getting in the way.
Davis, meanwhile, adds sprinklings of acoustic and electric guitar, little counterpoint things (see the second verse of My Ritual), fat lead riffs (again, My Ritual, but also the fuzzy hook on Free to Go and the lead riff on Kingdom of Lies, which is a longstanding favourite of mine), and big layers of all of the above (Someone You Love).
It’s the most closely and successfully that Barlow and a collaborator have worked together, but they had a sympathetic producer too, in Wally Gagel, who had also produced the Dare to be Surprised in 1997, and parts of Sebadoh’s Harmacy. Gagel gives a wide-ranging set songs a recognisable sonic imprint, a big bottom end, lots of focus in the crucial, and sometimes congested mid-range, and a pronounced top end, which suggested a bid for radio success – as did the crass mastering job from Steven Marcussen, which undid a lot of Gagel’s good work. It doesn’t ruin the record, but it’s a shame so many of the prominently mixed drum tracks lose their punch through having been square-waved.
It could have been a big hit record, albeit one that was a little out of step with the types of records that actually were being hits. Maybe if they’d made this in 1997 rather than the spare, often goofy (but very charming) Dare to be Surprised it would have been a big hit. As it was, it was reviewed positively (certainly in Britain) but went nowhere commercially. It sold 20,000 fewer than Surprised had**, which thrilled new label Interscope not a bit. Davis left the band, according to Barlow, as soon as the record was released. Their next album, as the New Folk Implosion, was muted and monochrome, with Imaad Wasif and Russ Pollard filling in for Davis and the drum machine respectively. I saw them in 2001 and they were actually really great, but songs from One Part Lullaby, too layered to be recreated on stage by three musicians (and possibly not Barlow’s favourite bunch after the record had stiffed), were notable by their absence.
One Part Lullaby is a deceptively troubled record, one more substantial than it might initially appear, then. Many of my favourite records from my late teens have paled for me in the intervening years. How could Dog Leap Stairs remain a touchstone once you’ve heard Blue, Paul Simon, and Judee Sill? But One Part Lullaby is still a favourite, not just because it’s a collection of really good songs (and a really good collection of songs, which is not the same thing at all), but because nothing else in my record collection sounds like it, combining early eighties new wave with hip-hop-derived rhythm tracks and singer-songwriter lyrics and chord changes. Whether or not it actually was one part lullaby to two parts fear, it was the right mix.
Folk Implosion – John Davis (top), Lou Barlow (bottom)
* Doing some research and background reading for this post, but after having written the early paragraphs, I came across this quote from Barlow on the forum he maintains (loobiecore): “John had some very serious mental health issues.. nuff said.. and i was more or less a drug addict.”
** Again, from Barlow’s forum: “The previous album ‘dare to be surprised’ outsold it by about 20,000 copies”. On another thread he’s more specific: “Dare to be surprised actually outsold it 2:1 (dtbs sold about 50,000, amazing to think of now). When i started working on a follow up to OPL the label (interscope) dropped me when they heard the songs.”