Solo albums like What Do We Do Now by the venerable J Mascis can be perplexing. Dinosaur Jr. have indicated no sign of slowing down, having been on tour the past seven months to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Where You Been (1993). Pop-up guests at different shows have been revered figures like Kevin Shields, Kurt Vile, Stephen Malkmus, and even Dave Matthews. In the world of indie rock fandom, few bands have garnered more canonical respect and affection. What motivations are there to go solo?
This new LP is J Mascis’ fifth solo outing, excluding his releases with projects and monikers like Witch, Heavy Blanket, Sweet Apple, and the Fog. However, they all reveal Mascis through and through, despite variations of musical tone and instrumental arrangement. What Do We Do Now is no different. The name on the album cover might change from time to time, but the sound can be remarkably consistent, whether through the thin, familiar whine of Mascis’ unmistakable vocals or the greater expressiveness of his unrestrained guitar lines.
What Do We Do Now is a Covid album with the title referring to the existential uncertainty introduced by the pandemic. Yet, this grim backdrop of mortality and introspection for many artists has not inspired or disclosed a new side to Mascis. The counterargument some listeners might pose is that this album is more intimate and heartfelt with its largely acoustic approach, the piano and pedal steel accompaniment on a few numbers, and sensitive lyrics about relationships. The esteemed critic Byron Coley says as much in the publicity notes provided. I shrug.
The true crime of this record is that no artistic risks are being taken here despite the palpable talent on hand. It feels rote. With ten songs at 45 minutes, things get tiresome quickly, with many of the LP’s compositions moving involuntarily into the background. A mediocre album by Mascis still has its above-average moments. Tracks like “Can’t Believe We’re Here”, “It’s True”, and “End Is Gettin Shaky” hold your attention, though they each last about a minute too long.
A number of these songs could fit on a Dinosaur Jr. album, which underscores a key problem with J Mascis. His dominant artistic control over that band’s oeuvre has resulted in much of his auxiliary output sounding similar. Contrast this conundrum with the inventive productivity of his bandmate Lou Barlow, whose side projects, whether Sebadoh or the Folk Implosion, have cultivated an entirely different identity and aesthetic.
Further afield, Mascis’ generational peers have equally explored highly individual directions. Thurston Moore has experimented with long-form instrumental compositions on the epic and enigmatic three-CD album Spirit Counsel (2019). Malkmus, whose work with his post-Pavement project, the Jicks, has also trended toward repetition, has gamely engaged electronica (Groove Denied, 2019) and global folk influences (Traditional Techniques, 2020) on recent solo LPs.
Against this backdrop, Mascis appears diminished on What Do We Do Now. Indeed, on second reading, the title comes across unintentionally as the question of a musician adrift. Dinosaur Jr. remain an excellent live band. However, the argument has been made that they haven’t released an essential album since 1991’s Green Mind, which was effectively a Mascis solo effort. This LP lacks that long-ago novelty. In this instance, Mascis reminds you of the fully grown man at Guitar Center who can shred like nobody’s business but has the imagination of a teenage Rush fan.
By way of conclusion, I recently listened to Keith Richards’ 1992 solo release, Main Offender, which, at a certain level, is as cornball as the title suggests. Yet, there is a sense of liberation, too. Without Jagger, Watts, and Wood, Richards is simply doing his thing, indulging his passions for blues rock, reggae, and soul with vocals that convey an attitude and vulnerability that usually go unheard. Props to him. It is an eccentric, personal album by an indispensable guitarist that rewards relistening.
One yearns that Mascis would translate his comparable ability into something similar with more frequency, whatever the genre. Past albums with Witch (Witch, 2006) and Heavy Blanket (Moon Is, 2023) have allowed Mascis to let his freak flag fly through psych-garage rock digressions and extended Can-inflected instrumental jams. More of that, please.
Too often, however, the problem has been one of routine. As a long-time lead vocalist and lead guitarist with an established style, J Mascis can’t seem to escape himself. Unplugged or not, What Do We Do Now epitomizes this cul-de-sac.