J. Mascis has always come across as an eccentric introvert who spends most of his time sitting around and watching TV. In an interview years ago he described himself as the kid in the high school cafeteria who was always making animal sculptures out of his food. And I read somewhere else that he used to tape stuffed animals to his clothes.
These biographical stories might seem unrelated to his music, but they aren't entirely so; Mascis' career is filled with brillant songs about feeling like an eternally rejected oddball. His whining voice can perfectly capture that "no one cares or understands, so I might as well sit around alone" feeling. Add that perspective to blazing guitar rock, and you've got some absolutely classic albums, especially You're Living All Over Me, Bug, Green Mind and Where You Been. His albums after that have been a bit spotty, often missing some of the raw feeling of his previous material, but now he's back on track.
His musical history and the relatively lackluster quality of his recent releases means that his great new album More Light, credited to J. Mascis and the Fog (though it's pretty much just him), will no doubt be discussed using the dreaded c word (comeback). That's a bit unfair, since he's never really left, yet it's understandable too. Mascis has channeled so much energy into More Light that it feels like a return, like he's bounding back with force.
More Light alternates between soaring rock songs and sweet, lonely ballads. The album succeeds so well because Mascis sounds confident about what he's doing. Each note seems placed right where it should be, yet the album has the same ragged, loose feeling of the best of Dinosaur Jr. Sounding both disheveled and together in the same moment is quite a feat. The album also has some of the best melodies Mascis has penned in years; songs like "Back Before You Go" and "Does the Kiss Fit" not only epitomize the "lonely guy" yearning that Mascis does so well, they do so with genuinely memorable pop melodies.
On one level, More Light is such a great J. Mascis album because it rocks so hard and so well. Yet it also shows a wider range of musical styles than his work before. He's not experimenting, really -- in general he's covering the same ground as always. But there are new stylistic touches throughout that really fit the songs, like the gentle piano on many songs, the radiowave noises of "Can 't I Take This On" and, especially, the lovely backup harmonies by Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard on three tracks, including the beautiful opening rocker "Same Day." These touches don't make the album, but they're nice, a sign that J. Mascis is not only still a viable musician, but also that he's interested in trying new things, something not often said of him. All in all, More Light has a true sense of progression to it, and it's a great reminder of how talented a songwriter J. Mascis is.