REWIND: Unbearable - Paul Baribeau
I could've died I was so happy..
REWIND is a series where we take a moment to turn the clocks back on an amazing album from yesteryear. The music journalism wheel turns too quickly, favouring new releases and forgetting history quickly. It makes sense - it’s a profitable model for the industry - but, we aren’t making a profit anyway. Why not take some time to revisit old favourites?
Paul Baribeau released four exceptional folk-punk albums before shifting to create equally excellent electronic music under the alias of New Boy. Of the four acoustic releases, Unbearable is by far and away my favourite. That’s in no way a disparaging comment to Baribeau’s prior releases - they’re all gorgeous - but rather a testament to how special of an album it is to me. Unbearable is, essentially, the swan song of Baribeau’s folk era. It ends on a high note, filled with romantic anecdotes and nostalgic stories.
My first introduction to Unbearable, and Paul Baribeau all around, was through Ezra Furman’s cover of The Mall. The Mall places the listener as a fly-on-the-wall in a Diablo Cody-esque montage of a pair of lovers making memories together. For each verse of the song, we’re taken into a fresh scene with such crisp clarity and succinct storytelling that it’s almost like we, too, are experiencing those memories being made. In the first verse, I see the neon striplights of the shopping centre beating down on me. In the second, I feel the static buzz down my arms of the imminent electrical storm. In the third, and final, verse, I smell the chlorine from the illicit dip. To cut the perfect lucidity of the verses, the chorus breaks through with gorgeous ambiguity: “I am broken wide open, bleeding everywhere”. Perhaps The Mall’s refrain chronicles a heartbreak, or a new freedom found in that partner’s arms, or something else entirely. Being left to wonder is all a part of the beauty.
Beyond The Mall, Baribeau’s lyricism really shines through across the whole album. Another lyrical highlight for me is the fawning Black Strat. The penultimate track on the album sits just shy of two minutes, giving us a short glimpse into a sweaty, smelly basement gig. More important than the gig, is the person swamped by the crowd surrounding them: their “guitar screaming in the dark”. Black Strat essentially feels like a parable not only to a perfect evening, but also to beacons of light in the darkness; the starlight on the “perfect midwestern night”, and the guitarist and their performance, “felt so holy”. Although there are undoubtedly other readings of the song, the first time I heard it, what I connected with was the sense of panic - and ultimately, freedom - that comes with connecting with your sexuality, or the community that surrounds it, for what is perhaps the first time. The feeling of freedom when you can engage with who you are, whether looking on at a performer or while experiencing a private moment headed home after a night out, can be a spiritually healing experience. Plus, who hasn’t had a moment of clarity when you looked at someone across a room and thought “holy, holy shit”? That’s probably basically how I realised I’m gay.
Unbearable is often an album of contrasts, not only lyrically, but also sonically. Wild Eyes, the final track on the album, is masterfully crafted out of a juxtaposition between a gentle acoustic guitar and wailing memories of running from the police with a fellow outcast. The song takes us on the journey of two young people, proverbially cast to the outskirts of their town (and one actually cast out of school), finding solidarity with one another while on potentially legally dubious adventures. The song almost casts the subject, the mysterious Wild Eyed person, as an outlaw - painting the two people as cowboys on the edge of town. The track takes place entirely in the past. The second-to-last lyric in the song, “we're not those kids anymore”, feels like foreshadowing echoes to Frank Ocean’s cry of “we’ll never be those kids again” in the equally adoring and nostalgic Ivy. I am left wondering what has become of those two outlaws.
Retrospection and nostalgia is clearly a strong point of Baribeau’s penmanship. The second song on the album, Eight Letters, is a look back through a relationship through the lens of would-be correspondence. The verses take us through what Baribeau would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, and shouldn't've said during the aftermath of the end of a relationship. The letters range from devoted and admiring to cold or scathing and all the way back again as the song progresses, in the entirely non-linear manner that healing can - naturally - take. What really sweetens the deal for me in terms of this song, is how much Baribeau manages to say in how few words. The line “the seventh one was magic, it was totally romantic / it would have made your little boxer shorts melt”, played off with the perfect coyness of a forgotten 70th love song by the Magnetic Fields, always catches me and makes me swoon a little, like finding a forgotten token of affection buried deep in a jean pocket somewhere.
It’s difficult not to fall in love with Unbearable, at least a little, on the first listen. It’s even harder not to adore it completely as the album loops around effortlessly. As cliché as it sounds, each time I listen, I hear something new - whether it’s a detail in a story or a chord I’d missed before, there’s always something waiting. Even setting aside the joy of finding new treats each time I listen, hearing Baribeau’s slices of life feels like connecting with an old friend at this point; catching up on everything they’ve been up to while you’ve been apart.
Toni Oisin H.C. is the Head of Audio at QSO Media. Read more of his writing here.
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