Don't call it just a comeback, because Dinosaur Jr. proves yet again on I Bet on Sky that you can do what you do best even better.
Can you think of any band in the alt-rock era that’s had a better second act than Dinosaur Jr. has had? No, one-off reunions don’t count, but it’s not like any of them can match the way Dinosaur Jr. has re-emerged after apparent extinction with a nice streak of albums as good as -- if not better than -- those from what was supposed to be its heyday. So you can’t really call what the original lineup of J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph is doing a comeback, since this particular threesome has now made the same number of studio albums together as a unit now as before, as if the almost-two-decade hiatus apart was just a natural interval between projects. Indeed, the unlikeliness of Dinosaur Jr.’s revival makes it all the more compelling: Considering the acrimonious split between the band’s principals, Mascis’ passive-aggressive ways, and Barlow’s success on his own, Dinosaur Jr. overcame the high odds stacked against it to get back to where it belonged in the indie pantheon, as much active players as living legends.
As with the other Dinosaur Jr. reboot albums, I Bet on Sky sounds like an attempt to pick up where the band left off when it splintered at the end of the ‘80s as Mascis more or less went it alone to a major label. Maybe the welcome-back novelty of 2007’s Beyond had a little bit to do with how riveting it was, but Farm and I Bet on Sky aren’t based as much in nostalgia, more like efforts imagining an alternate history that answers the question of what if the group had stayed together. Finding middle ground for their working relationship didn’t mean they had to compromise musically: What the trio came up with was a hybrid between the messy, driving punk-pop of its ‘80s SST output and the heavy-duty alt-rock of Mascis’ subsequent major-label foray, as rough-hewn melodies intertwine with extended guitar workouts.
So whereas you’d assume camaraderie depends on chemistry that you’ve either got or don’t, the current incarnation of Dinosaur Jr. suggests that it’s something that can be learned and earned, proven by the way Mascis and Barlow have matured over time through their successes and failures. You notice how they’re pulling in the same direction on the opening track “Don’t You Pretend You Didn’t Know”, an epic number that’s able to capture the catchy tones of Dinosaur Jr.’s early catalog without scaling back any of the guitar pyrotechnics that Mascis has built his career around. Yet while Mascis’ axe-wielding wankery could feel excessive to the point of monotony the more virtuosic he became, there’s a looser dynamic at play on “Don’t You Pretend” that leavens and enlivens things with some jangly riffs and the insistent piano chords in the background. The first single “Watch the Corners” may be heavier and more rugged in its textures, but it’s also got the spontaneity and energy of Dinosaur Jr.’s seminal SST tracks, just done up with a clearer production that emphases all the contours of its loud-soft-loud-louder trajectory.
For a group whose combustible soundscapes always seemed like the products of creative tension, the reformed -- in every sense of the word -- Dinosaur Jr. moves ahead with everyone on the same page, getting their act together now that they’ve all got their shit together. The questioning tone of “Stick a Toe In” and the bittersweetness of “What Was That” feel more sincere and sentimental than just about anything from Dino Jr.’s hot-and-bothered proto-emo days, as if the experiences that Mascis and co. have gone through on their own and together have gotten them past being jaded and cynical to a better mental space. At least, that’s the idea you get with “Stick a Toe In”, when an older and wiser Mascis actually gets poignant and introspective on you, without beating himself up too much, as he has been prone to do, wondering, “How far should I go? / Or will it be enough to feel it slipping from my mind?”
Indeed, having to work with such strong musical personalities has helped Mascis reach a broader range of tones and hit higher emotional notes -- it should go without saying that Mascis’ late-career resurgence has yielded music that’s definitely richer and more complex than when he was moping around like a sad sack as Dinosaur Jr. became a band in name only before petering out in the mid-‘90s. That sense of being able to appreciate feeling something -- anything -- after having been there and done that rings truest when Dino Jr. steps out of character on the almost funky “Almost Fare” and the wah-wah-ing “I Know It Oh So Well”, both of which are brighter and more spirited than you’ve come to expect from Mascis. With a little more space and air in the mix, the easy-going groove of “Almost Fare” reveals another side to Mascis all these years down the line, as his coarse falsetto manages to sound vulnerable rather than irreparably scarred, as he implores, “You won’t see / You and me / Gotta find out”. “I Know It Oh So Well” marks an even greater shift in tone and perspective, finding Mascis at ease with a sense of knowing that’s more reflective than resigned, especially when he goes existential, musing, “Every day it’s getting harder / It’s a life I need to start it / Try to grab it / It’s getting farther away from me”.
While only the bandmates themselves know whether time has healed all wounds and helped them bury their grudges, the way all the pieces fit on I Bet on Sky gives you the idea that they’re doing more than just letting bygones be bygones, but actually learning to appreciate one another in a way that allows them to play off each others' strengths. It’s hard not to imagine that a more confident and less insecure Barlow has had a hand in refocusing the band’s sound on a catchier, pop-minded approach. So even if they do seem, at first, a little jarring next to Mascis’ sprawling pieces on I Bet on Sky, the tracks where Barlow takes the lead are anything but token additions, rather contributions to the bigger picture that highlight what he offers to the give-and-take between the bandmates. Brisker and more melodic, Barlow’s “Rude” and “Recognition” have that pogo-ing Sebadoh quality to them, but are beefed up with guitars that are sinewy enough without being overpowering. More than anything, these songs speak to the shared effort of I Bet on Sky, as Mascis and Murph are willing to follow Barlow’s lead, while he’s open and trusting enough to let them make the most of his songs by giving them free rein to express themselves, like with the rapid riffing on “Rude” and the bashed-up metal strains on “Recognition”.
And you’ve got to believe that the feeling is mutual for Mascis, whose control freak issues were a big part of the problem in the first place. Along those lines, the renaissance of Dinosaur Jr. has to do with the enlightenment of all the parties involved, as they somehow got to the point where they could pick up where they left off so long ago. Who knows exactly why Dinosaur Jr. got back together and why it’s better for it, but one thing’s for certain about I Bet on Sky, and that’s that you can always do what you do best even better.