Since the return of the original Dinosaur Jr. lineup in 2007 with the instantly classic Beyond, J Mascis and company have been on a roll. His immediately recognizable guitar stylings are no longer only a defining characteristic of Dinosaur Jr. albums, but a key reference point in indie rock’s critical discourse. For some twenty years now, we have likened talented new guitarists who are unafraid of big amps and thick, fuzzy tones to Mascis, in the same way that he was once likened to the classic rock players he emulates. However, despite the ever-increasing size of congregation at the Church of Mascis, that guitar has never once sounded tired.
Although some fans considered ’90s Dinosaur Jr. albums, after the departures of bassist Lou Barlow (of Sebadoh) and drummer Murph, to be essentially J Mascis solo albums, it was not until 2011 that the first proper solo J Mascis solo LP, Several Shades Of Why, was released. That album largely found Mascis trading in his signature electric axe for its acoustic counterpart, picking and strumming his way through a batch of direct, beautiful tunes.
Released this week on Sub Pop, Tied To A Star reads like the sonic sequel to Several Shades. It is largely acoustic, punctuated by the occasional fit of electric guitar and, when the songs call for it, drums. This album expands upon Mascis’ acoustic side to great effect. His voice, normally settled comfortably amongst a wall of guitars and cymbals, here sits at the front of the mix. As a result, we hear in his voice all the charm, weariness and tenderness that a traditional rock record doesn’t always allow for.
Mascis does pick up the tempo occasionally. Lead single Every Morning is one of his most direct pop songs ever, written in the vein of classic late-Dino Jr. jams like Beyond’s Almost Ready. Mascis can’t resist the urge to break out a few guitar leads over the song’s classic chord progression, and we can’t blame him. However, the song’s main instrumentation is strummed acoustic guitars and tight, crisp drums. As a result, the attention falls squarely on Mascis’ lyrics. Even though the song invites its fair share of toe tapping and head nodding, its chorus still points towards a deep-seeded sense of emotional unrest: “Every morning makes it hard on me/Then I wake to who I’ll never be/Then it hits me here’s the life I lead.”
Immediately thereafter, Heal The Star keeps the energy up, giving way to a lengthy, jammy coda that works in guitar feedback, finger cymbals and hand percussion. Like Every Morning, it’s a memorable moment. Spurts of energy return during the rollicking, vigorously-strummed Drifter and Trailing Off, which builds from an acoustic ballad into a full band romp.
But this album’s most striking moments often come when Mascis commits unreservedly to the ballads. Opening track Me Again is disarming and hushed in all the right ways, feeling like a sudden cease-fire to Dinosaur Jr.’s noisy bombast. Penultimate track Come Down is another standout, a slow, falsetto show-stopper with a heavy distorted guitar buried as far back in the mix as it could be. The effect is something beautiful and ghostly.
The album’s arguable highlight, however, is Wide Awake. The song is a lightly finger-picked folk ballad, arranged as a duet with Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. Their voices, produced cleanly and without any significant reverb, sound fatigued and honest. The touching result is certainly a career highlight for Mascis, and enough on its own to elevate this album’s status from good to great.