Recorded in just six days and boasting a relative simplicity and an arrangement largely limited to Barlow’s voice and accompanying acoustic guitar, Brace The Wave is all about honesty. This being Lou Barlow though, there are layers of overdub and guitar fuzz, so the honesty needs to be pried out of the mess every now and then. That mess is understandable and necessary, as Brace The Wave feels connected to the dissolution of Barlow’s 25-year marriage. If Sebadoh’s 2013 record Defend Yourself, which came out shortly after his breakup, reflects the immediate, visceral feelings that come with the disintegration of a decades-long relationship, Brace The Wave is the more meditative companion piece, an album that boasts the benefit of distance and reflection.
What that means is that Brace The Wave is less a breakup record, where the feelings and heartache are still fresh and vibrant, and more a reflection on the plethora of emotions that rear their head in the months and years after. Heartache lingers over the album like a ghost, but Barlow isn’t exploring fresh wounds; he’s running his fingers over the scars and remembering how he got them. “Wave,” one of the brighter songs on the album, is all about the need for intimacy and closeness, and how such a need can strain any relationship. Barlow uses the chorus to repeatedly ask his partner to stay, while knowing that leaving her alone is the only option. That kind of tension—where the right thing to do goes against everything your mind and body is telling you—is evident throughout Brace The Wave, lending gravitas to the stripped-down arrangements.
Elsewhere, Barlow muses on life, death, love, and identity. Mind and body collide on “Pulse,” the album’s most existential track. It’s at once an ode to embracing defeat, of accepting limitations and seeing them as chances for growth, and an exploration of death. He sings of literally sitting and taking his pulse, as worries about the way the mind and body deteriorate run through his head at all times. But Brace The Wave isn’t all darkness. There’s hope on “Redeemed,” where Barlow reckons with culpability and responsibility, suggesting that admitting we’ve made mistakes is a way to heal. “Nerve” mines similar themes, its more aggressive beat and structure adding a sense of urgency to the contemplative lyrics.
Brace The Wave is at its best when Barlow truly strips down, emotionally and sonically. “Boundaries” and “C&E” are the best tracks on the record, two explorations of guilt and intimacy that feel truly honest and revealing. “Boundaries,” the most obvious exploration of Barlow’s marriage, looks at the emotional risks taken in a long-term relationship. The song reckons with the notion that despite words of commitment and love, nobody owes us anything. Whereas much of the record delights in hiding Barlow’s voice behind a dose of analog fuzz, “C&E” sees his voice at the front of the mix, the only time on the record where it’s truly clear and precise. It’s fitting though, because “C&E” is the album’s most confessional song, a track that looks at how times of hardship can result in rebirth and discovery.
Brace The Wave isn’t exactly original or inventive, but what it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in emotional honesty. It’s an album meant for close listening. When you’re lying awake late at night and contemplating all the mistakes you’ve made and things you shouldn’t have said, Brace The Wave is the kind of album that lets you know you’re not alone.