So much for guitar hero J Mascis, at least for this record. The guy known for shredding up front in Dinosaur Jr. is taking a different approach to his first solo studio record, Several Shades of Why. His first album for Sub Pop is all acoustic, hushed throughout, and despite its general lack of rock and roll, the album’s intricate layers and subtle tension create their own energy.
Mascis has kind of approached this before, with 1996’s Martin & Me. That excellent live document, though, transferred the crunching energy of original Dinosaur Jr. tunes — and a few covers — into the solo acoustic setting. Several Shades of Why is much more antithetical to the guitar jams of Mascis’s band. Even his creaking voice is scaled down here. “Very Nervous and Love”, which sounds like a time for tense shrieks, is whispered out in groans. He employs the same confessional quiet on the spare “Too Deep”, and the title track lets the intricate finger picking and strings add flourishes around Mascis, while his voice falls into despondency — “It all ends in disaster,” he sighs at one point.
It’s a curious statement for a guy whose album deals an awful lot in waiting. The tension in these humble sounds comes out in Mascis’s trying to wait for someone (“Listen to Me”), asking someone to wait for him (“Is It Done”), and knowing that waiting won’t get him much (“Too Deep”). Still, the quiet insistence that comes out of all of these angles makes the album work. “Is It Done” is a particularly striking example of this tension, as the verses are full of cut-off, squawking lines, but the chorus ends in a calm cascade of notes, and Mascis’s voice softens to a heartfelt plea.
Musically, the record gains a subtle expanse as it goes. The first few songs, “Listen to Me” and the bright “Not Enough” in particular, almost feel like demos. A tambourine here, some backing vocals there, but mostly it’s just Mascis and his guitar. The songs are solid, if simple, but he’s smart enough not to rest on these basic constructions. “Very Nervous and Love” all of a sudden tangles with guitars and mandolins and clattering keys and other studio sounds, rendering the song all the more haunting when players fill in the space. Twanging electric guitars and flute swirl around on “Make it Right”, and on “Can I”, the dustiest track here, the acoustic buzzes in some dropped tuning while electric guitars grind along with it.
Mascis, of course, still fits in some solos, but this stuff actually works better when he avoids them. “Is It Done” climaxes in a tumble of notes, but they feel a little too big for the acoustic guitar under them. The soloing works better when he delivers it from an acoustic guitar on “Can I”, or when he tempers it a little so it meshes into the track on the brooding, energetic closer “What Happened”. In the end, we know how good Mascis is at soloing, so it’s his ability to layer different guitar parts on Several Shades of Why that makes such a quiet sound so intense — even at its most laid back — and gives us a new view of his impressive talents as a pure musician.
He brings in plenty of players to help here, including Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, and others, but none may sway the sound more here than Kurt Vile. The young player seems to invigorate the veteran, and the haunting layers of sound here surely echo what Vile has been doing. How directly responsible he is for that is unclear, but though Vile and Mascis are very different songwriters and players, you can feel a connection working over these tracks, and the resulting sound ripples out more than such a quiet record should.
Still, though you can hear him meshing with the players, this is very much J Mascis’s own sound, and he delivers these songs with the sure hand we’ve come to expect from him. He approaches these quiet sounds with the same precision and energy with which he delivers the crushing volume of his rock songs, and he shows — perhaps more than side projects like Witch can — just how versatile a performer he is. This is a dark and sometimes aching record, but it never spills into full-on despair. His voice rasps not with wear, but with the tension of pushing on. He may end the record in a comfortable spot — with a blistering and, obviously, impressive solo — but on Several Shades of Why he steps out of his norm and takes the long road to get there. So, for all the wandering in the dark he does here, you can’t blame him for finding his way home in the end. In fact, you may just thank him for it.