It seems like a good time for Dinosaur Jr. to come back. Rock and roll can’t come out today without its share of irony, the music often a platform for personas and posturing. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the bliss of pure dude rock. And no one encapsulated that simple pleasure more than Dinosaur Jr. From ’85 to ’97, J Mascis and Company put out seven albums of hard, crunchy music and blistering solos. The most productive years (1985-1989) had Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph churning out such classic albums as You’re Living All Over Me and Bug. Enough has been said already about the tension between Mascis and Barlow. After Barlow left the band, Murph soon followed suit, and Mascis began producing Dinosaur Jr. records essentially on his own. And now, for reasons unexplained, the original line-up has a successful reunion tour under its belt, and has the first album of new material in almost 20 years.
When we last left the Barlow-less, Murph-free Dinosaur Jr., Mascis gave us the overall disappointing Hand It Over. That album was full of three-minute songs that never came together, and aimless long tracks like “Alone” that couldn’t possibly be of much interest to anyone but J. His years with the Fog were occasionally successful, but nothing measured up to the great moments Dinosaur Jr. conjured. It’s great to hear, on Beyond, that the group can capture that magic again. Anyone who’s followed the band knows that Mascis likes to shred, and that his solos can be epic, but also self-indulgent when not kept in check.
But what this album reveals, especially when listened to with the other “Barlow-era” albums in mind, is that these two guys can keep each other in check, but also amplify their particular talents. Barlow’s sense of the song is all over this record, many moments calling to mind his best work with Sebadoh, while still sounding like Dinosaur Jr. The songs are tight in a way most of Mascis’ stuff wasn’t after Barlow exited. “Almost Ready” and “Been There All the Time” are straight-up rock anthems with riffs so memorable they might get encoded into your DNA. “Crumble” is the classic mid-tempo Dinosaur Jr. track, building up to a cascading solo that find Mascis’ guitar work no worse for wear after all these years.
The feeling of the whole album is pretty loose, and the guys sound like they’re having fun. In the same way you can tell Mission of Burma’s reunion work has been essential to them, something they had to do, Beyond is the sound of a band who realized what it lost and are having a helluva time getting it back. You can hear space in the album — perhaps the space necessary for them all to work together — and that room lends itself well to the heavy crunch of the guitar, the chest rattle of Barlow’s bass, Murph’s impeccable drumming. There are a few moments where “loose” threatens to slip into “slack”, as tracks like, “This Is All I Came to Do” and “It’s Me” drag their feet just a bit more than they should. “I Got Lost”, the ninth track, is a rare quiet moment and has Mascis singing in a high register, calling to mind the much-maligned “Alone” from ten years ago. Luckily, this song has a little restraint, and clocks in under five minutes, but Mascis’ falsetto might be trying even to the most devoted listener.
Still, the movement of the album is as intriguing as the individual songs are. The album brings the rock right away, using opener “Almost Ready” as a quick announcement that the band is back and this is no half-assed reunion. By the tail end of “Pick Me Up”, we are in the throes of a full-on Mascis guitar attack that takes over the last two minutes of the song. That is followed by the floor-shaking, Barlow-penned “Back to Your Heart”, which finds him writing (along with “Lightning Bulb”, his other front man contribution to the album) his most essential songs in years. But as the album goes on, it softens, with songs like the country-tinged ‘70s rock of “We’re Not Alone”, Barlow’s crunching but subdued “Lightning Bulb”, and the nearly distortion-free closer “What if I Knew”.
And yes, there’s a guitar solo whenever there can be on this album. So what? Isn’t metal on the radar now? Don’t they pile solos in all over the place? Who says indie rock can’t have some damn solos too? And maybe there are too many here, and of course they’re somewhat self-indulgent. But isn’t that what guitar solos are all about? If it’s a good solo, we can overlook those kinds of things. The important aspect about Beyond is that the solos are created for the songs, and not the other way around. All Mascis’ ripping sounds firmly planted in the structure of the songs. They do go on longer than they should sometimes, but are rarely anything less than engaging. So, rather than quibble over the necessity of guitar solos, let’s all just celebrate this: Dinosaur Jr. is back. And with the checks and balances back in place between Lou and J, this could be the first in a string of essential albums from an already seminal band.