The quality of Lou Barlow's songwriting hasn't dipped much over the years, but throughout his recent trip from Sebadoh to The Folk Implosion to The New Folk Implosion, Barlow's passion seems to have fallen off. In his lo-fi days, he invested warped experiments and haunting ballads with an equal amount of heart, but over his last couple of albums, even the best songs sound oddly flat. Barlow's first real solo album, EMOH, shuffles just about all the styles that the alt-rock veteran has tried throughout his career, from chamber pop to murky grunge to hissy acoustic laments, and it features guest appearances from Sebadoh and Folk Implosion colleagues Jason Loewenstein, Russ Pollard, and Imaad Wasif. The album feels like a summation. It also feels as naggingly undercooked as most of Barlow's work this decade.
Of course, Barlow's such a skilled tunesmith that EMOH is listenable anyway, especially early on. The gently peppy album-opener "Holding Back The Year" makes quiet yearning sound adventurous, and the track that follows, "HOME," spreads an intensely morose electronic hum across one of Barlow's typical fits of sympathetic navel-gazing. But by track three, the Folk Implosion-styled tick-tock pop move "Caterpillar Girl," longtime Barlow fans may rightly wonder if he has anything new to offer, or if he's going to keep returning to modes and moods that he's long since mastered. Even the album's later high pointsthe toe-tapping, hopeful "If I Could," the glib "Mary," and especially the rich, slowly spiraling "Confused"sound a little too cautious.
Again, it's not like EMOH is a bad record by any stretch of the imagination. For listeners unfamiliar with Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, EMOH might actually make a good entry point into Barlow's varied discography, since it relies on all his gifts. But coming from a man who pioneered warts-and-all home recording, and who often gets cited as a progenitor of emo's soul-baring DIY ethica dual legacy that the album's title mocks and embracesthis set of songs disappoints with its unwillingness to take real chances. Seemingly afraid to sound foolish, Barlow now sounds just okay.