An unmistakable prettiness penetrates the noise.
One of the most underrated and underappreciated aspects of Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis is his capacity for melody; even when the music is at its most aggressive, there is still always an unmistakable prettiness that penetrates the noise. Especially in the work that Dinosaur Jr. has put out since its first comeback album, released over a decade ago, Mascis has honed a folk-tinged pop sound without losing any of the fierceness and “crunch” of his earlier days. Since releasing his first proper solo album, Several Shades of Why in 2011, he has also followed a parallel track of even prettier, mellower music, the latest of which is this year’s Elastic Days, his third album under his own name and his most confident one to date.
A hallmark of Mascis’ songwriting, especially in these solo albums, is the unabashed tenderness of his lyrics, which are not shy about delving into the personal and sentimental. His raspy, high-pitched voice serves the songs well, showing its cracks at the right moments, before letting his guitar do the real wailing. Early on in Elastic Days, toward the end of the second track, “Web So Dense,” it is clear that Mascis’ vocals are better than ever, relying not just on fragility but their own force and clarity, too. Throughout, it sounds like he has (consciously or not) grown more comfortable with his voice placed front and center, proving himself to be an intensely compelling vocalist, more than even his own fans might already think.
As with his previous solo effort, Tied to a Star, the influences on the overall sound would seem to be 1970s folk, with the western Massachusetts-based Mascis conjuring up his own version of Laurel Canyon. With guests in tow, including Miracle Legion’s Mark Mulcahy and Luluc’s Zoë Randell, Mascis otherwise handles all the instruments himself. Many of the songs, such as “Sky Is All We Had” and “Drop Me,” have a breeziness to them, setting Mascis’s introspection against a jaunty background of strummed acoustics and tastefully minimal drumming whose mellowness is pierced only occasionally by the unmistakable peals of Mascis’s solo guitar work. The soloing, it should be said, has itself gotten increasingly melodic over the years, and so it has become clearer than ever that guitar functions as an extension, rather than as an interruption, of Mascis’ vocals.
Beyond melody, his knack for rhythm is alive and well on songs like “Cut Stranger,” which has what sounds like an R.E.M.-inspired, arpeggiated riff, and the Neil Young-esque “I Went Dust,” whose mournful, folksy mood blooms, a few minutes in, into affirmative guitar strums, colorful splashes of drums and Mascis’s soaring electric. Though Mascis uses some of the same hues, whether in terms of chords, melodies or song constructions, his palette has only grown deeper, so what can risk sounding like repetition strikes the listener as instead finding shades between shades, in order to extract even more depth from a vulnerable, stripped-down sound.
Indeed, Mascis continues to lyrically focus on a theme of vulnerability. Across his work with Dinosaur Jr. and his solo material, he has perfected a kind of fragmented way of writing lyrics that feel both concrete and abstract—and yet Mascis doesn’t quite spell things out. Even simple phrases like “Shake me down/ Shake me out,” “Try hard to be/ Try hard with me” or “Sifting the ground/ Hard to believe you’re still around,” to pick only three, employ a kind of iceberg approach, revealing relatively little while conjuring vast emotional expanses dormant beneath. Elastic Days is an album of eloquent simplicity, full of quiet moments that leave a mark on the listener even at their most discreet and unobtrusive, moments that offer a great measure of solace even at their most restlessly self-doubting.