The Freed Man
1989; r: 2007
y the time Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me lumbered squealing and screeching to its catastrophic conclusion, the din softened, the lights went down, and little Louie Barlow plucked away at what sounded like a ukulele, whispering self-conscious confessions into the nether while loops of ear-to-seashell drone expired around him.
I don’t seeYup. It was a watershed moment; one of those times when painful juxtaposition between brazen and slobbering-wad guitar rock came colliding ass-end first with something so impossibly fragile and otherworldly that their meeting could be only considered phantasmal.
I don’t feel
Like every other moron
I think nothing is real…
Barlow’s Jekyll and Hyde existence—stalking stages by night, armed with booming bass, laying leads for drummer Murph to glom onto, and alternately holing up at home with the four-track and pawn-shop acoustic—was destined for a destructive end. In the wake of his split from Dino Jr., Barlow threw himself into home-recording, filling feet of the big brown every night, chronicling his hits and misses—with a heavy concentration on the misses. Every fucked up relationship, every dunderheaded pickup line, every mirror-gazing appraisal vivisected in grand fashion, and all accompanied by plaintive, woefully untrained guitar. He probably could have gone on forever all by his lonesome; he probably would have been happier.
But Barlow sought the conflict that his life ached for, and it entered in the form of Eric Gaffney, an enigmatically creepy gent who was every bit Barlow’s antithesis. Gaffney did the home-recording gig, too, but his songs were nebulous, confrontational vehicles loaded with inchoate imagery involving plants, bodies of water, natural disasters, mold, colors, and religious and psycho-sexual themes. His voice vacillated from dog-whistle whine to velvet baritone. Miles from Barlow’s Haight Street strumming, Gaffney clawed at his guitar, pulling notes from its neck and stomping them silent with filthy, bare feet. Invasive elements were held close; Gaffney prided himself on song sabotage, overloading miniature pieces with tape loops, strange sound effects and over-dubbed tonal barf. It all worked wondrously, deserving a de rigeur sub-genre tag years before its time: “apocalyptic folk.”
Eventually Barlow and Gaffney fused strengths, going tit-for-tat in some sort of psychological sonic war, where the spoils were nada and the victor was destined for the dustbin. Songs went from directionless self-searching—“Healthy Sick”—to confessional gibberish—“Soul Mate”—to transient mucking—“Bolder.” Gaffney’s lyrics are patently imagistic: slick, breathing word. Barlow’s are pedestrian: sad clown, ice-pick-in-your-urethra minutiae.
Bound together it compromised The Freed Man, and was unleashed on an uncaring populace circa 1989. A few zines sang its praises; more than a few stories circulated by word of mouth about the record’s rhythmic monotony inducing seizures or worse.
Indeed, some songs are repetitive, unsettling, annoying, and unrefined; that’s half the charm. The other half is couched in minute melodies, pre-natal lullabye bits that drift through truncated structures like dust motes. Music is unformed, confused. Words open like rusty trimmers and neglect full phrases as so much left to rot on the vine. Often times the urge to create overcomes that which is created: “Land of the Lords” is merely a repetition of its title, manically sung over a near-death acoustic. “Wall of Doubt” scribbles guitar over looping feedback waves, baritone indifference closing the door: “Twisting, everything is fine / In the hole inside your mind”—an apropos line, as The Freed Man is nothing so much but “music” as parasitical act. Those that disseminate it—Barlow and Gaffney—do so out of necessity; the worlds that they inhabit have filled them with their shit; their only recourse is to ceremonially extract the host by pouring out their minds onto tape.
Domino’s reissue adds even more tracks to the package—a bit much considering that it weighs in at 52 total—and includes new liners co-authored by Barlow and Gaffney. Waxing poetic about the world that was has a way of becoming quickly tiresome; Barlow and Gaffney are better off playing music instead of talking about playing music. Perhaps the same can be said for critics, too.
The true poetry was hewed in the moment: Barlow’s Ogden Nash to Gaffney’s William Carlos Williams. Those that attempted to articulate the sonic miasmata were left drawing straws. One poignant review—and the only one I remember line for line to this day—pinned the duo’s early effort down in but a few ink spills. Said spills came courtesy of Atlanta’s Low Life zine and the author—perhaps Damon Moore or Glen Thrasher—wasted little time heralding the messianic, noting that Sebadoh were “trudging—bleary-eyed and cotton-mouthed to a Brand New Way.” And so they continue…