They long ago abandoned the lo-fi aesthetic that made them famous, and Sebaoh’s latest is another set of slick rock songs. Whether that’s a good thing or not will depend on your level of saturation with modern alt-rock.
Opener “phantom” tries to get spooky on us, and it succeeds if you listen to the lyrics, but let it fade into the background and it’s a standard rock song taken at a brisk pace that gets you moving – nothing unsettling about it at all. Next comes another ostensibly dark song: “celebrate the void”, which dramatically slows down the pace for the first minute and a half before whipping the proverbial horses and upping the tempo again to get everyone bouncing around. The rhythm section carries us between these sections seamlessly, drums a-pounding and bass a-growling. It’s a celebration of the void that actually sounds like a celebration, not a wake.
They follow this strand with a bit of fluff called “follow the breath” which is keyed to the line “you just like building fences” that feels misplaced in an era that likes building walls instead. It’s a sign that they’re the same old Sebadoh: remorselessly self-absorbed, only casually political (a.k.a. aware of the rest of the world).
A song called “medicate” follows that is the catchiest on the album, a jangling guitar descended from The Byrds clicking instantly with their catchiest chorus of the year. The lyrics you can guess from the song’s title, but the music you can’t. It’s more tuneful and a lot less sluggish than you’d imagine.
For a band that’s made a career out of see-sawing between two distinctly different songwriters, Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein, it’s surprising that this album contains their first song called “see-saw”. It’s a fine one, a catchy piece of alt-rock self-mythology. Yet “vacation”, which follows, is a nasty piece of work; telling someone “release yourself from you before you blow up” amidst sludgy guitars and an “I raise my glass” from the band is hardly sympathetic to someone undergoing a crisis, in fact it’s positively cruel. Any sense of kindness from their past, however imaginary that might have been, is dissipated.
Predictably, they’re better a couple of tracks later when their anger and disappointment is directed at themselves: “I will be your puppet/I won’t be your clown” is pretty complex, especially when coupled with their brightest melody on the album. Not clowning around, they sing about a “raging river” next, which leans heavily on the bass to conjure that imagery. Trading off vocals like pop pros, Barlow and Loewenstein content themselves with singing to each other from either side of the raging river, one which has always divided and united them across their songwriting.
If you see a track called “sunshine” on a Sebadoh album you’ll assume they’re being Ironic with a capital “I”. Not quite, in fact; they’re just using it to contrast with the blackness of their misery: “I need sunshine to ignore” goes the key line. The song’s uplifting, as you can imagine. Don’t “act surprised”.
The band’s “battery” is not about assault like Metallica’s, and it’s nowhere near as bracing in sound (I still think that’s Metallica’s best song). It’s actually a complaint about the Modern Age, as middle-aged men are supposed to put on their albums: “just too fucked up to ever focus/all of that buzzing in your pocket” they snarl, the guitar snapping at this individual even more viciously. “What makes a battery explode?” goes the next line, the band sounding more energised about this thought than any other on the album. Did we really need to hear this?
“belief” starts like a philosophical essay: “belief decides the truth” but quickly becomes another diatribe against a presumed woman. Mixed in the distance in this recording towards the end is what sounds like a clarinet: is this what the band thinks belief sounds like? The distant echo of a rarely used instrument? That’s a more interesting thought than the rest of the song.
The guys sludge their way to the end of the album, via a leap year and a song titled after the capital of Iceland. Yet they leave no mark: Bakesale and especially Harmacy, their peak, left you with hooks and lyrical curiosities to ponder long after the albums had finished. Act Surprised will fade into the lower reaches of your memory shortly after it’s finished.
It’s not a bad album; nowhere is it overbearing, exceptionally tedious or tendentious. But it is an underwhelming experience nonetheless: a treading of water from a band that used to swim gracefully through the oversaturated world of alt-rock.