There are some bands, perhaps those that display their creative ambitions most explicitly, that we want to push themselves further and further, and we get disappointed when they fail. However, there are some bands that have so spectacularly nailed what it is that they do that any form of change might well spell disaster. Three of my favourite bands fall firmly into this category – Teenage Fanclub, The Lemonheads and Dinosaur Jr. All three bands make guitar based rock music that makes no attempt whatsoever to hide its simplicity, and with which it is remarkably easy to connect. Dinosaur Jr. perhaps had the most brutally effective formula – a unique brand of scuzzy slacker rock that somehow managed to sound lazy and invigorating at the same time. That their template greatly informed the grunge phenomena of the early 90s is now undisputed.
How appropriate it is, then, that ‘Beyond’, the first album from the band’s original line-up since 1988’s ‘Bug’ should open with a characteristically coruscating distorted guitar solo from J Mascis. It’s clear from the opening ten seconds that not a lot has changed in the intervening 19 years. Well, good. J Mascis has not lost his ability to pen addictive and infectious rock songs, and ‘Almost Ready’, ‘This Is All I Came To Do’ and the jangly ‘Crumble’ are more than worthy additions to the Dinosaur Jr. canon. The Mascis songs on this album don’t do much to develop or progress this band one bit – but they certainly sound like they are enjoying rediscovering their original strengths. Mascis’ double-tracked guitar solos are consistently thrilling, Barlow is rock solid throughout, and Murph’s drumming is simply awesome, always crisp and propulsive, particularly on the relentless ‘Been There All The Time’. Perhaps the one exception to this is the restrained ‘I Got Lost’, which dares to deploy (shock! horror!) acoustic guitars and a cello. As a consequence, however, it’s probably the least immediate track of the set.
The main obstacle to Dinosaur Jr. breaking out of cult appeal probably continues to be Mascis’ voice – a deliberately muffled, throaty, cigarette-stained whine of contempt for obligation and responsibility. Even the song titles carry that weary sense of resignation and negativity (‘I Got Lost’, ‘What If I Knew’, ‘Pick Me Up’ etc). More casual listener might well therefore embrace the two Lou Barlow compositions featured here. It’s a delight to hear Barlow’s tender melancholy bolstered by this band’s furious riffing and inspired exposition, and ‘Back To Your Heart’ and ‘Lightning Bulb’ easily stand up to any of Mascis’ contributions.
Excellent though this album is, and wonderful that it is to see Mascis and Barlow onstage together again, I have to confess to some reservations about this whole project. There’s of course the lingering sense that most reformations have a financial impetus, and given that this one started with some no doubt lucrative festival appearances, there can be little doubt that lucre came into this one too. Nevertheless, one certainly can’t begrudge them earning a little cash, particularly Barlow, who seems to have been largely subsisting throughout his career, a fate that should never befall a songwriter of his quality. I’ve also observed that this reunion seems to have given birth to a rather questionable form of critical revisionism that suggests that the second line-up of Dinosaur Jr. was purely a matter of diminishing returns. Mike Johnson may well have cause to feel a little upset about this, as the later line-up of the band produced three of the greatest singles of the nineties with ‘The Wagon’, ‘Start Choppin’ and ‘Feel The Pain’. ‘Beyond’ is a very satisfying record, but I’m not sure it contains any surefire classics on that level. Still, the fact that there’s still a kinetic and fiery connection between these three is surely enough.