Defend Yourself, Sebadoh’s first full release in 14 years, picks up pretty much where the band left off. The album, the voices, and the style are all what Sebadoh fans remember, but repeated listens reveals maturity and development in the songwriting.
Despite the long recording hiatus, Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein, and drummer Bob D'Amico have been touring on and off (alternating with Barlow’s tours with Dinosaur Jr) for the last couple years in promotion of the reissues of Bakesale and Harmacy.
Much has been made of Defend Yourself’s themes, which come from Lou Barlow’s separation and divorce from his wife of 25 years. It is interesting to see him on this side of heartbreak. Barlow feels the guilt of hurting someone as deeply as he himself hurt, and he can create a sense of empathy, if not sympathy, through his raw retellings. Not shying away or hiding behind a veil, on “I Will,” Barlow sings, “Someone else has found her way into my soul; things have changed, no longer need to be with you.”
“State of Mine,” another Barlow song, has grown considerably from the live version he played on a ukulele while “opening” for Sebadoh on tour last year. Starting with the memorable line, “They have the calves of champions,” the older version seemed to be a humorous tirade against the spoiled, posh dads of Los Angeles. The new album version goes deeper, running against impossible standards and the ache of not being able to measure up.
Possibly even more interesting are the songs where Barlow does not take the lead. In the past, the songs that weren’t Barlow’s were raucous, noisy, punkish blasts, but here they are toned down, sounding more solid and fully formed. On “Final Days,” there is a subtlety to the way Loewenstein manipulates his voice, bringing an achiness where in the past he might have just yelled, “No I’m not the one who broke it and I can’t fix it; the friction wears away.” On “Can’t Depend,” Loewenstein surprisingly brings to mind Neil Young and Wilco, but the guitar line is unmistakably Sebadoh.
In a year full of long-awaited albums from My Bloody Valentine, David Bowie, and the like that were met with mixed reactions and quickly faded, Defend Yourself beautifully straddles the difficult schism of sounding similar enough to past records so the new music is recognizable, sounding different enough so fans stay engaged, and not releasing anything too similar to what they’ve already done. Unlike other highly anticipated 2013 releases, Defend Yourself compels repeated listens, each provoking a flood of nostalgia, a moment of recognition, or just plain pleasure.