Mascis is the father unable to leave his child, Barlow is the returned prodigal son.
Dinosaur Jr. is that rarest of breeds: a beloved cult artifact that has, if anything, produced more great records since their unlikely, past-their-prime reunion than during their original glory run. Each of the three albums that the band has released since 2007’s Beyond has explored a facet of their broadly unchanging but nonetheless mutable sound, and now the fourth, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, delves deep into the group’s pop abilities. The results can be a step down from the more exploratory compositions on I Bet on Sky while also finding new ways to challenge preconceived notions.
The album gets off to a rousing start with “Goin’ Down,” a fiercely chugging piece of fuzz rock that recalls the best of the band’s slacker anthems, charged with a contradictory energy that compels the listener to go crazy and do nothing at all. All of the trademark Dinosaur elements are present: riffs that split the difference between underground punk and ‘70s radio rock, the harsh feedback mellowed considerably by J Mascis’ plaintive whine and yearning lyrics. When the guitar solo comes, as it inevitably must, it perfectly parallels Mascis’ voice, trading the pounding grind of the rhythm section for elegant, clean lines that prioritize melody over showmanship.
These solos are the standout element of the record, and the band orients itself around Mascis’ concision. The tendency toward extended (but never jammy) solos on prior records is traded for utilitarianism and a focus that prevents any song from stretching past single length. “Tiny” keeps up the tone of the opening track with similar arrangement, but “Be a Part” juxtaposes Murph’s murky drums and Lou Barlow’s rumbling bass with a guitar pattern that could almost be called “chiming.” When Mascis sings lines like “Come on and be a part of me,” he betrays an uncanny ability to mine the same subject matter of rejection and loneliness that dotted the band’s 30-year old releases but to give them enduring spirit with the focus of the songwriting.
There is variety to boot. “Lost All Day” has the folk-fuzz feel of Wussy, simultaneously bright and heavy, and Mascis almost croons when he moans “Oh baby, what with wrong/ With you and me, you and me.” “I Walk for Miles,” meanwhile, is almost heavy metal, synchronizing Mascis’ down-tuned guitar with Barlow’s bass to compound its low-ended assault while Murph pounds snares in the background. “Good to Know” employs two solos, each brief enough to maintain the laser focus of the galloping tempo while letting Mascis show off. Undoubtedly the most surprising track is “Knocked Around,” which starts at a loping two-step with high-pitched, slow vocals from Mascis before it erupts halfway through into pop-punk and the most searing solo on the album.
Yet even if the album regularly avoids settling into a groove, this is the first record since the band’s return that feels standard and unsurprising. Perhaps that is because the three preceding LPs so thoroughly surpassed expectations that finally one can approach its new work without the fear of it reeking of cash-in opportunism. No other Dinosaur Jr. album has ever sounded this focused and melodic, and it’s easy to overlook that as being a progression as much as their more distended, psychedelic releases. The worst you can say about Give a Glimpse is that it is merely very good, and the best you can say is that it boasts several more classic additions to the band’s canon, from the throwback opener to the two standout songwriting contributions from Barlow.
Barlow has long since been vindicated for his disastrous sacking after Bug, first for the precipitous downturn in Dinosaur’s act as it became Mascis’ vanity project, then for the quality of his work with the group since its reunion. But the real secret behind his great writing is that, more than either of his bandmates, he has matured the most since the glory days. Gone are the spikes of self-loathing and self-defensive irony, replaced by a complex, reflective tone that contrasts beautifully with Mascis’ deliberately arrested development. “Love Is” encourages a romance instead of pleading for one, while closer “Left/Right” engages in dexterous wordplay and conveys a general sense of contentment. Mascis still scratches at the walls of his bedroom, but Barlow says “My fate is my fate/ I’ll lie back and wait,” successfully converting slacker ennui into zen idyll. It illustrates competing mindsets that makes Dinosaur’s reunion so great: Mascis is the father unable to leave his child, Barlow is the returned prodigal son.