In the ’90s, Sebadoh essentially defined indie-rock, acting as the surly poster child for a genre that didn’t want to be labeled, because “Who gives a shit about that stuff, man?” The band even delivered the genre’s tongue-in-cheek mission statement with the sludgy “Gimme Indie Rock,” a sort-of origin story about finding a sound and then shit-talking it (“Taking inspiration from Hüsker Dü / It’s a new generation of electric, white-boy blues”). Twenty years later, the genre tag doesn’t mean much, and Sebadoh has existed for the last 10 as many of its peers have—as a nostalgia act of recent vintage. And there’s nothing wrong with that: Focusing largely on the band’s most accessible, largely untouchable middle period—1993’s Bubble & Scrape, 1994’s Bakesale, and 1996’s Harmacy—has resulted in some delightful, frequently messy live performances from co-frontmen Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein.
New material in these situations frequently proves tricky, as it does with Defend Yourself, the first album of fresh Sebadoh songs since 1999. Barlow’s other reunited band, Dinosaur Jr., navigated its re-emergence well, injecting surprising new life into its same old sound, and though Barlow only contributes a couple of songs to each Dino record, his have been fiery and fantastic of late—which makes Defend Yourself a bit confusing in its messiness. Sebadoh returned to home recording here, which was a point of both pride and necessity on its early, most cantankerous releases. But these guys are older now, and the songs they’re writing don’t mesh as well with that aesthetic. (An old Sebadoh shirt read: “Sebadoh. Lo-fi? Yeah, fuckin’ whatever.”)
Which isn’t to say Defend Yourself lacks all of what made the band great: Album-opener “I Will” and its follow-up “Love You Here” are heartbreakers in the classic Barlow mode, made even more heartbreaking by the knowledge that his songs here were at least partly inspired by his recent divorce. But it’s a bit of a slow slide from there, in large part because Loewenstein seems to have matured to the point that his spastic counterpoints no longer really exist: When he’s writing in Barlow territory (as on “Can’t Depend”), Defend Yourself comes grinding to a halt. Only the title track (or sort of title track, “Defend Yr Self”) really brings back his sense of danger. Otherwise, it’s a largely murky affair punctuated by a few bright spots of that old-time Barlow sadness. The sound remains the same, but the songs aren’t always there.