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Dinosaur Jr.: Sweep It Into Space

More than 15 years into Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion, it’s still sometimes hard to believe they have now been reformed longer than they existed in the first place, and that they have amassed a secondary catalog of records that stand proudly beside their ‘80s underground classics. Sweep It Into Space, their fifth post-reunion record and 12th overall, occasionally sounds like the band themselves are taking stock of this unlikely turn of affairs, and the result is their most laid-back, sun-kissed record in a discography once defined by loner angst. Given how egos tore apart the band during their glory days, it’s striking that, from the opener “I Ain’t,” the trio sound truly pleased to be in each other’s company. As J Mascis sings over and over, “I ain’t good alone” before admitting that “It’s too late to / Truly make it alone.”

That breezy attitude runs through the album. Mascis’s voice has by now matured from its early Neil Young-esque whine to something closer to alt-country twang, which lends his vocals a wistful quality where once they felt chemically numbed. Combined with a brighter guitar tone that renders his trademark squalls of distortion in blissful summer-jam tones, Mascis makes even a song like “I Ran Away” sound cheerful and reflective, particularly on encouraging lyrics like “Keep it now and keep the sound / All the pieces that you found / Fit together to just to reach you” that undermine the surrender implied by the song’s title in favor of hard-won wisdom. The Lou Barlow-penned “Garden” is as delicate as dandelion seeds blowing in the wind, brittle guitar lines folding into choruses backed by walls of fuzz that never lapse into aggro noise rock.

The band have messed around with softer sounds before, but here they consistently find ways to tweak their classic sound into a new context. “And Me” has a galloping charge but is done via acoustic guitars, letting the spring of Barlow’s bass take prominence as Murph skitters over cymbals. Barlow’s bass across the album has a bouncy quality, never showy but always prominent in the mix and on equal footing with Mascis. And when the guitars turn electric, they buoy the energy rather than take over the mix. “Take It Back” puts a light swing into both its percussion and Mascis’s vocals that feels like the kind of gutter retro rock of Exile on Main St. turned from darkness toward light. In general, Mascis modulates his guitar heroics into concise, melodic bursts of invention, replacing his proto-shoegaze howls for classic rock shimmer that manages to run through soaring solos without ever lapsing into indulgence (none of the album’s tracks runs to five minutes, and most don’t even make it to four). Through it all, Murph’s sharp snare hits puncture the shimmering sound that Mascis and Barlow craft as if reminding everyone of the punk spirit still lying beneath the surface of this indie bliss.

Dinosaur Jr. do still have some cheek to them, though. “I Met the Stones” is an amusingly ambivalent account of meeting Mick, Keith and the lads, with Mascis all but audibly shrugging as he explains the un-coolness of hanging with the boomer icons with “If you’re invited, stupid not to go” before he eventually confesses to being weirded out by the experience with “I got excited, I got depressed / The situation and then the rest.” That he then unleashes the most aggressive solo on the record afterward amusingly feels like a defensive gesture to justify that they could hang with the Stones. Still, by the time you reach Barlow’s closer “You Wonder,” a stripped-down bit of light psychedelia, you’re left with the impression that if this is not the best of Dinosaur Jr.’s post-reunion albums (largely a matter of preference given their near-uniform quality), this is assuredly the most relaxing, accessible record they’ve ever put out, and with no sacrifice to their core sense of self. Approaching the 40th anniversary of their formation, the band sound as vital and committed as ever.

Summary
If this is not the best of Dinosaur Jr.’s post-reunion albums (largely a matter of preference given their near-uniform quality), this is assuredly the most relaxing, accessible record they’ve ever put out, and with no sacrifice to their core sense of self.
70 %
Reflective contentment
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