Dinosaur Jr.’s new album — the first since 1989 with its original lineup — is appropriately named Beyond because it’s largely a transcendental affair. The trio of guitarist J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph have risen above years of angst and drama to prove there’s an intact group gestalt none of them have quite captured separately.
The story of Dinosaur is epic and oft-told — these early indie pioneers fused punk, psychedelia and youthful petulance into the prototype of slackerdom over the course of three impossibly influential albums. Tension between Mascis and Barlow led to a messy split in 1989. Mascis and Murph continued in a powereddown version of Dinosaur while Barlow wrote broken- heart confessionals in Sebadoh. The trio surprised the world by reuniting in 2005 in support of reissues of the first three albums.
Rehashing past glories onstage is one thing. Writing and recording new tunes is another. Thankfully, the 11 songs on Beyond show the band sounding like a cohesive whole. Just like in the old days, the new material is sonically layered — simultaneously noisy and gorgeous. But it also has a ripeness that reflects the members’ headspace. Barlow is a family man who has mellowed; Mascis is married and is a devotee of the Indian hugging guru Amma, which has made him more forgiving. The existential crisis of youth that characterized the band’s first three albums has been replaced with a more mature seeker vibe.
From the opening strains of “Almost Ready” (which intentionally sounds like there’s a giant glob of lint on your stylus), the band proves that its sense of sonic adventurism is intact. From the country-tinged “I Got Lost” to the up-tempo rockers like “This is All I Came To Do” and “Been There All The Time,” Mascis shows off his savant-like ability to peel off lick after lick and rarely descend into wankery. Barlow is a bass auteur whose straight-armed strumming and mellifluous counterpoint displays the kind of confidence required to keep up with Mascis. It’s no secret that Mascis writes all the drum parts, but Murph plays them with a special thrust that’s missing when Mascis plays them himself (like he did on most of the post-Barlow records).
Lyrically, both Mascis and Barlow — the main protagonists in the Dinosaur soap opera over the years —proclaim that they’re lost and trying to find their way. On the gentle “I Got Lost,” Mascis asks repeatedly “Can we be the same again?” It’s almost like a mantra reflecting the band’s current state as much as a plea for understanding.
Barlow’s two songwriting contributions include “Back To Your Heart,” a love note to his wife and muse Kathleen Billus. There are likely few relationships that have been so well documented in song. It’s more reminiscent of Barlow’s work with Sebadoh than his earlier Dinosaur songs. His other tune, the political “Lightning Bulb” is perhaps the most challenging song here. Mascis is left without the strong melodic anchor he usually clings to, so he digs into a rarely heard avant-garde side of his playing.
If Beyond shows off a newfound adulthood, the DVD Live In The Middle East offers a puissant reminder why anybody cared to begin with. The DVD was filmed in 2005 by Mascis’ colorful brother-in-law, the German filmmaker Philip Virus, at Boston’s Middle East and New York’s Irving Plaza. The band works through a set filled with classics from the band’s first three albums, as well as the post-Barlow semi-hit “The Wagon.” The performance is thrilling. Without pyrotechnics or dance moves or even much interpersonal charm, the trio creates a sonic pressure that’s palpable, like trying to breathe pudding instead of air. It’s a shame that more bands don’t age this gracefully.
Brian J. Bowe writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.