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Dinosaur Jr. Get Back to Basics on the Stellar Sweep It into Space: Review

J Mascis and Lou Barlow turn in some of their most reflective songwriting to date

Dinosaur Jr., photo by Cara Totman
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Release Date

  • April 23, 2021

Record Label

  • Jagjaguwar

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    The Lowdown: With the benefit of hindsight, it’s funny now to think that any hopes for a reconciliation between the original members of Dinosaur Jr. seemed to die their final death over a few months in 1991. That year, feuding former bandmates J Mascis and Lou Barlow released two records that seemed to give both men exactly what they wanted. Released in February, Green Mind found Dinosaur Jr. riding the alt-rock groundswell to major-label heights with a more polished sound now under Mascis’ complete control. Reportedly recorded for just $1,300 a month later, Barlow’s Sebadoh III eschewed slickness for a volatile set of lo-fi tunes predicated on the collaboration he’d lacked as Mascis’ bassist. Listen to “The Freed Pig”, and then tell me that the next three decades unfolded as predicted.

    Thirty years later, the disagreements that sparked Barlow’s departure now read as a footnote rather than a death knell. Since reforming the original lineup in 2005, Dinosaur Jr. have become the most reliable act of the college radio and grunge generations, releasing records that match or (in the case of 2007’s Beyond and 2009’s Farm) even exceed the more-venerated early albums of their catalog. That improbably hot streak continues with Sweep It into Space, the band’s 12th record and fifth since reuniting. Recorded largely before the pandemic, the record features a co-production credit from band influencee Kurt Vile, whose more extensive contributions were curtailed by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

    The Good: Consistency is key, as the saying goes; it certainly applies to Sweep It into Space, the first Dinosaur Jr. record since 2016’s equally good-to-great Give a Glimpse of What Yr Not. Having perfected their own signature formula (something like “Mascis’ guitar heroics and cracked-leather vocals + Barlow’s moody bass and songwriting change-ups + Murph’s bash-and-pop drums = a pretty solid record, actually”), the band simply unleash it here, resulting in a collection that feels effortlessly familiar. The approach is best heard on opening stunner “I Ain’t” (an ode to connection and collaboration that could just as easily apply to musical partnerships as it could romantic ones), but it continues successfully throughout; the chugging “I Met the Stones” luxuriates with the album’s most ferocious solo during its four-minute roll through the classic rock sludge while “I Ran Away” highlights Kurt Vile’s 12-string countermelody inspired by Thin Lizzy.

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    Mascis’ lyrics are vague as a rule, but the ones on Sweep It into Space seem unusually focused on stock-taking and amends-making. That sentiment reaches its crescendo on rousing almost-closer “Walking to You”; charged by an electro-shock current that courses through the background like a malfunctioning amp, the track finds Mascis beckoning a departed someone with the plaintive admission “I know why you left.” His own moments of vulnerability are heightened and contrasted by those of Barlow, whose customary pair of tracks also stand among the album’s best. Written prior to the pandemic, “Garden” and “You Wonder” nonetheless capture the impulses to connect and cling that most of us felt over the last long year. In particular, “Garden” pairs that urge to disappear together with a bruised hope that the world still might be savable. “Where do we go when faced with such dramatic confusion?” Barlow asked himself when describing the song. “Back to basics, back home, back to the garden.”

    The Bad: When dealing with a band as reliable as Dinosaur Jr., the faults present usually have more to do with what isn’t there than what is. There are certainly what ifs to consider when imagining a better version of Sweep It into Space. What if the pandemic hadn’t hit and Kurt Vile had gotten more studio time with the band? What if the band avoided the misfires associated with committing to a formula, whether that’s repeating yourself (as on “Hide Another Round,” whose chorus is lifted wholesale from Farm standout “Over It”) or veering too far from the script without any clear way to tie the experiment back to the whole (as on the Mellotron-driven oddity “Take It Back”)? Or, and here’s a big one: what if Mascis had sacked those last two cuts in favor of giving Barlow an expanded songwriting role on the record? In addition to being a terrific symbolic gesture on the anniversary of 1991’s animus, it would’ve also given Barlow the chance to further expand the undercurrents of tenderness already running throughout the album. These missed opportunities wouldn’t’ve necessarily made for a better record, but they would’ve probably made for a slightly more interesting one nonetheless.

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    The Verdict: Four decades into their career together, the men of Dinosaur Jr. aren’t ones for tinkering, and why should they be? When you have a signature sound as enduring as theirs, deviation only seems destined to produce disappointment. And so, J Mascis will sing his ballads under his own name, and Lou Barlow will stretch his songwriting legs with Sebadoh. When you turn on a Dinosaur Jr. record, the thinking goes, it should always sound like a Dinosaur Jr. record. I’m happy to report that Sweep It into Space does, in fact, check this box. Given their track record, and the lengths it took them to get there, they’ve earned the right to let things ride.

    Essential Tracks: “I Ain’t”, “Garden”, and “Walking to You”

    Sweep It into Space Artwork

    Dinosaur Jr Sweep It Into Space

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