You’d struggle to find two more laid-back astral pilots in the musical universe than Dinosaur Jr main man J Mascis and Kurt Vile, producer and co-guitarist on Sweep It Into Space, the fifth album in the 16 years since the Massachusetts alt-rock legends were reborn. The combination is a winning one.
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Former War On Drugs member and acclaimed solo artist Vile was enlisted by Mascis because he “was listening to a lot of Thin Lizzy, so I was trying to get some of that duelling twin lead sound”. The laconic duo cut an unlikely modern incarnation of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson, and the plan was never fully realised due to the intervention of Covid. With the sessions cut short for a record that was originally due to be released in the middle of 2020, Mascis was forced to get the first Dinosaur Jr release since 2016’s consistently strong Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not over the line on his own, finishing off the guitar work and playing keyboards instead of regular collaborator Ken Mauri.
It’s not clear precisely what Vile’s producer role entailed, or what Sweep It Into Space would have sounded like if the sessions hadn’t been curtailed, but that’s irrelevant because the finished record is as strong as anything Dinosaur Jr have produced since Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow buried the hatchet in 2005. The band’s familiar fuzz-drenched post-hardcore assault is present and correct throughout their 12th studio album, yet they cover as much stylistic ground as on 2012’s varied I Bet On Sky.
Mascis’ writing and lead playing continue to mature gracefully with his advancing years and these are finely crafted pop songs adorned with some truly exceptional soloing. Opener I Ain’t establishes an early sense of bristling anticipation, Mascis and Vile exchanging growling chords as a propulsive bassline and unrefined 4/4 beat crash in. There’s a sense of weary longing in Mascis’ voice as he repeats the confessional refrain “I ain’t good alone” while a series of ostentatious string bends detonate in the spaces between his drowsy vocal lines. He then sounds deliciously wry on I Met The Stones, recalling over a filthy powerchord riff, “I got excited, I got depressed”, of the night the one-time drummer broke the ‘never meet your heroes’ commandment to shoot the breeze with Charlie Watts.
Where there are signs of Vile’s enigmatic input, they’re illuminative, the sparkling purity of the lead lines and arpeggios from his 12-string on I Ran Away as joyfully melodic as Johnny Marr in his Smiths prime. Mascis replies with a solo that’s extravagant perfection.
Hide Another Round is classic Mascis, too, a thrumming fuzzy rush, his vocal sitting atop the layered harmony guitars and Patrick Murphy’s machine gun snare fills, the solo a blur of unison bends and fluid trills. They top the lot with And Me, a gleeful acoustic rhythm part hurtling along in much the same way as The Cure’s In Between Days or Marr’s Bigmouth Strikes Again, underpinned by scratchy palm-muted chords. The “you and me, my love” chorus is a dreamy, sun-splashed wonder, and the pair of solos weaving around the song’s descending hook are masterful. Mascis concludes one of the finest pop songs he’s ever fashioned with the naked admission “I can’t take myself”.
Perhaps inspired by the presence of another guitarist, the old master’s lead playing is scintillating throughout Sweep It Into Space. The passage that begins two minutes into I Expect It Always is best described as blistering, Mascis observing darkly “maybe I’m not well”, a crack of Murph’s snare inviting a wild lingering bend to usher in a thoroughly exhilarating solo that returns for a second pass in the song’s final seconds.
A run of five consistently potent records since their reformation suggests Mascis and Barlow have found a way to co-exist happily in the studio, although Barlow is still only granted his customary two songs here. They’re both great, Garden formed around a gently loping shuffle, summery lyrical riff and glinting 12-string arpeggios that elevate the chorus. Mascis delivers a trademark short buzz-saw solo dripping with fuzz, as he does on Barlow’s other contribution, the wistful You Wonder, an understated three-minute closing track, after the album has reached its true climax with the penultimate Walking To You. On the latter song, Mascis winds up for a dazzling multi-layered fretboard masterclass that twists and turns throughout the final two minutes, ascending to a series of triumphant peaks.
Dinosaur Jr’s unlikely second act has now endured longer than their original period, and the odd couple of Mascis and Barlow continue to make records every bit as good as those from their first wave. Kurt Vile’s pre-Covid appearance as a second-guitar foil may not quite have lasted long enough to fulfil Mascis’ Thin Lizzy fantasies and even he doesn’t seem to know what producing Sweep It Into Space entailed, but it prompted some of the most engaging songwriting and guitar work the band have ever committed to record. It’s a partnership that would be worth revisiting.