To say that Bubble & Scrape loses the plot over the course of its 17 tracks would be a mistake; that would imply that there was some kind of plot in the first place.
Songwriting partnerships are rarely partnerships in a real sense. Even a band like Sebadoh, which famously relies on instrumental collaboration between its members, stopped being a real team at some point. Originally conceived as a tape-recording project by founders Lou Barlow and Eric Gaffney, they became a full-fledged band following Barlow’s dismissal from Dinosaur Jr. As a side project, it seemed like a weird fit: how would Barlow’s sensitive, straightforward bedroom ballads mesh with Gaffney’s more abrasive, experimental work? To add to that, the group added Jason Lowenstein as a third songwriter, and you have a group that’s kind of unstable by design. The implosion of Sebadoh’s first iteration was probably inevitable, and their fifth album Bubble & Scrape is effectively a live document of a band falling apart at the seams.
There’s this perception of 90’s indie rock as being this ramshackle beast fueled by deliberate amateurism. From the outside looking in, the whole genre could be reduced to a handful of sensitive, clever white men recording whatever arch stuff they felt like and releasing it as finished music. This is, of course, an incredibly reductionist position, but in a lot of ways Bubble & Scrape typifies that view of indie rock. While it isn’t as deliberately DIY as Sebadoh’s III, which still had one foot in the world of 4-track home recording, there’s a freewheeling spirit in which anyone’s ideas are worth committing to tape. Granted, that’s entirely in the collaborative spirit of the band, but after four preceding albums it’s clear that each of the members want to take the band in a different direction. Barlow’s songs are naked and even a little uncomfortable in their honesty; they reflect his deepest insecurities, the tumultuous nature of his personal relationships and the difficulty he had managing his emotions. Gaffney, by contrast, plays the part of a demented jester, filling his songs with nonsense lyrics, snarling yelps and macabre imagery. For his part, Lowenstein straddles the line between the two, contributing sad, heartfelt ballads (“Happily Divided”) and aggressive hardcore (“Sister”) in equal measure. To say that Bubble & Scrape loses the plot over the course of its 17 tracks would be a mistake; that would imply that there was some kind of plot in the first place.
What’s more, while Sebadoh is being pulled in so many different directions, it’s pretty clear that Barlow offered the most fertile ground. While his young, self-centered sad guy shtick has aged poorly for some, his gift for melody was undeniable even when he was recording alone in his bedroom. With a full band behind him, his songs stand out all the more above his bandmates. Opener “Soul & Fire” and “Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)” are 90’s indie staples for a reason, and even less-heralded tracks like “Sacred Attention” and “Homemade” still cut to the bone decades later. Gaffney, on the other hand, is kind of running on fumes. His peculiar method of songwriting was reaching its apotheosis, and it’s difficult to see him evolving further from here. Songs like “Elixir is Zog” or “Telecosmic Alchemy” may have a certain amount of appeal, but it often feels as if Gaffney is making noise for its own sake. One struggles to find anything deeper in his songwriting, and that becomes especially apparent not just when contrasted with Barlow’s emotional bloodletting, but also with Lowenstein’s increasingly personal work. Sebadoh were becoming an increasingly sincere band, and Gaffney’s antics on Bubble & Scrape seem fairly out of place as a result.
That said, one can’t help but enjoy the ride. It could be argued that Sebadoh became a better band following Gaffney’s departure, and the band themselves seem to regard their two post-Gaffney albums Bakesale and Harmacy as something of a high water mark. But there’s something endearing about Barlow and Gaffney’s tug of war, unpredictable if emotionally lacking. The haphazard way in which Scrape is assembled is plenty inviting to those of a certain mindset, as well; it retains the feel that the older Sebadoh albums had of being mixtapes more than albums, collections of songs passed personally to you from the band themselves, even if this was the most professionally-sounding mixtape ever made at the time. The fact is, Sebadoh weren’t a generic indie rock band, even at their messiest. It took a lot of heart and conflict to make something like Bubble & Scrape, and while it’s definitely not for everyone, its best moments still resonate.