10 Years Ago: Dinosaur Jr. Reunite With ‘Beyond’
By the time Dinosaur Jr. had called it quits in 1997, the band had essentially been weathered down to the status of a skeletal DINO (Dinosaur in Name Only). So when they began to signal a reunion in 2005, it was all the more surprising that it would be each original member under the same studio roof to record 2007’s triumphant comeback, Beyond.
Founding bassist Lou Barlow had been fired by J Mascis before the band’s first major label effort, 1991’s Green Mind, and Mascis had micromanaged, excluded, and overrode drummer Emmett “Murph” Murphy into resignation four years before Dinosaur Jr.’s commercially devastating parting shot, Hand It Over. The ensuing years saw new musical projects form and personal animus mount, with interviews not uncommonly peppered with subtle-but-not-so-subtle personal jabs—most frequently leveled from Barlow. But the title of their reunion effort suggested that those squabbles were well behind them.
The indecision implied by the title of the opening track, “Almost Ready,” is eclipsed by the very first squeal of J Mascis’s trusty Fender Jazzmaster. Before the vocals are even introduced, the shredding that pierces its three-chord frame announces that this resurrection is not a question but a declarative statement. Indeed, the self-conscious lyrics, buttressed by such crusading rawness, offer assurance that each facet of Dinosaur Jr.’s brand of pulverizing-but-disaffected indie rock is intact. But whereas the opening tracks to Hand It Over (“I Don’t Think”) and Without a Sound (“Feel the Pain”) welcomed the listener with patience and care, Beyond erupts with immediate distortion-wrenched authority.
Confessional self-pity laced over searing musical bravado is a defining trait over which Dinosaur Jr. has long laid claim. It’s precisely this mixture that feeds the tension so poignantly felt throughout their catalog. And that this juxtaposition is deployed to such rewarding effect on Beyond, after a decade of inactivity, suggests that it’s less a novel songwriting formula and more an expression of the complicated nature of J Mascis and Lou Barlow as cooperating personalities.
The paradox of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement is anything but a unique conflict for musicians. But rarely has such a conflict been expressed with simultaneously detached and boastful showmanship. Peering past the recordings and into the personal relationships that produced them, throughout the band’s late-80s run J Mascis was the ostensible self-styled god and Lou Barlow the neurotic moper. (Murph has maintained he was assumed the role of intermediary during the early days). This friction reverberates most profoundly on their opus You’re Living All Over Me and its follow-up, Bug, the last record performed by all three original members.
So powerful was this dynamic that it persisted well past the fragmenting of the band. “The Freed Pig” by Sebadoh is understood to be Barlow’s quintessential jab at Mascis. But even so, the lyrics contain at least as many affronts aimed inward as those directed at his former co-equal. “You were right / I was battling you to prove myself,” Barlow spills before sarcastically saluting his subject’s “big head” for finally “having that ‘room to grow.’” Likewise, Mascis’s messianic artistic control would eventually render Dinosaur Jr. as Mascis' solo project in essence, with a revolving door of temporary collaborators before disintegrating entirely.
Estranged from one another, Barlow turned his lo-fi side-project Sebadoh into his primary focus before forging a fluke hit, “Natural One,” with his secondary band, Folk Implosion, which reached no. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995. Murph embarked on a brief stint drumming for the Lemonheads, while Mascis had continued to produce albums with his new band, J Mascis + the Fog—a moniker disallowing of confusion over who’s in charge. Yet, by the time the three had crossed paths again years later, there was no disagreement about whether it was time to reinhabit Dinosaur Jr.’s distant shell.
“It’s just kind of slowly sorted itself out,” Mascis told Pennyblackmusic in 2005. In the late '90s, Mascis had started attending Sebadoh shows, which Barlow took as an opportunity to first air a decade’s worth of bottled-up grievances before apologizing for that same time period’s collage of personal attacks issued through the alternative music press.
Thus, the eager display of bright, radiant force that leads Beyond isn’t forged without reason. It’s redolent of the rejuvenation and clarity offered by reconciliation—an anthemic 21-gun salute to the ambivalent and rueful. On Beyond, the sensitive artifacts of the group’s complicated past aren’t so much discarded as they are set ablaze so as to ignite and exacerbate the band’s traditional musical strengths. “Let the past unwind,” Barlow sings on “Back to Your Heart,” one of his two credits on the record, over a slow-building paean that marches forth in long, wide steps.
“It’s Me” and “Pick Me Up” see J Mascis, as the titles unabashedly suggest, at his most self-focused and attentive to his cosmic mission as an axe-wielding virtuoso. Laboring hard-rock riffs that snarl and chug ferociously, the frontman has never sounded surer of his sense of purpose. But you wouldn’t think so at first: “I’ve been stung and I’ve been weak,” he confesses on the latter song. But then, after some pensive introspection, a three-minute guitar epic emerges, whose mettle speaks for itself.
The somber “I Got Lost,” Dinosaur Jr.’s most focused acoustic ballad, simmers with Mascis pleadingly repeating in a hushed falsetto, “Can we be the same again?” to an unresponsive abyss of foreboding drum fragments and mourning cellos. Howling guitar solos dare not enter. “We’re Not Alone,” its adjoining gentle number, on the other hand, isn’t so lucky to escape the puncturing of Mascis’s haywire wailing.
Hidden beneath the muddied varnish of distortion and fuzz is the core of a melodious power-pop kiss-off on “This Is All I Came to Do.” Guided by the spirit of the Replacements’ Paul Westerberg, the track, armed with Dinosaur Jr.’s familiar listlessness, parades carefree guitar chops and major-key jubilance around its lyrical woe. It’s an appropriately disheveled presentation of the band’s musical attitude that might have better functioned as the album’s closing track—the conversation-ending period to their relationship-mending reformation. Beyond isn't a thirst for adventure, but rather a reclamation of tried-and-true aptitudes. Which is perfectly fine. This is all they came to do.
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