To the uninitiated or casual fan, it’s difficult to discern the difference between a J Mascis solo album and any long-player issued by his main musical outlet, Massachusetts indie-rock titans Dinosaur Jr.
Many of the familiar Mascis aspects are evident on What Do We Do Now – you get to enjoy the plaintive drawling voice, the melancholic and thoughtful lyrics, and of course his trademark guitar sounds. To make things a bit more interesting, he blends in some folky and country elements, like subtle steel pedal guitar inclusions, mandolins, keyboards and even the odd fiddle/violin. There are electric guitar lead solos, and full drum kits – which means at times there’s the ear-splitting racket of Dinosaur Jr, but with no Emmett “Murphy” Murphy on drums or Lou Barlow on bass – but otherwise, like most Mascis solo albums, this is generally a more reflective and chilled-out affair.
As a long-time fan – I was first introduced to Dinosaur Jr as an 18-year-old – my ball is entirely in the Mascis court. I have roughly 75% of his solo and Dinosaur Jr material, including dodgy bootlegs, white label promos and releases by the very intense Heavy Blanket side project which is essentially instrumental stoner heavy metal.
To be fair, this album does largely resemble what he’s done in the past as a solo artist – Martin & Me (1996, essentially live solo Dinosaur Jr) Several Shades of Why (2011), Tied To A Star (2014) and the excellent Elastic Days (2018). And I’m fine with that.
Old Friends could easily be a Dinosaur Jr track, while Set Me Down flirts with 21st century pop-country, a singalong ditty in which Mascis reminds the listener – and, seemingly, a frustrated lover – he’s here to stay, albeit with his quirky relationship limitations (“Come on and drive me crazy, come on and keep it rolling….if I start now, I’ll lose it, come on tell me what went wrong,” he wonders aloud.)
There’s more of that sentiment on Hangin Out: “It’s up to me to be now, should I let you know now?” and later “in a state, it’s not looking great for me”…”save me from the weight that holds you down… Hangin Out, but lonely”. Can’t Believe We’re Here is the more uptempo highlight, while I Can’t Find You is the folky stand-out, reminiscent of Neil Young.
It’s all fairly familiar Mascis territory: self-reflective, mournful, perhaps even a little depressing at times. Mascis has never been one for producing “happy” songs, and that’s part of the appeal for us overly emotional types: we feel like he speaks for and to us, reminding us of our mental frailties and the simplicity of our humanity. He’s the voice inside our slightly sad heads, bringing to light the feelings we seldom share. Mascis is a known fan of The Cure and The Birthday Party, and those influences are most evident in the lyrics.
As always with Mascis solo albums, the production here is first class. Everything comes together perfectly and the guests (Ken Mauri on piano, Matthew Dunn on steel guitar) make nice subtle contributions to fill out the sound without stealing the limelight.
Dinosaur Jr is on an extensive tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Where You Been, and as a side hustle, Mascis is performing a few solo dates to showcase this material. At time of writing there’s no solo dates in New Zealand, which is a bit of a bummer, because while a Dinosaur Jr live show is a full-on aural assault, a Mascis-alone date is a far more interesting affair, with the man alone on stage.
That said, no complaints here. J Mascis’ music has sound tracked my entire adult life and it is extremely rare for me to go through a week without listening to one of his records.
What Do We Do Now is a solid addition to a career which began in the early ’80s, and 40 years later, is still making me stop and think about who I am and where I’ve come from.
I’ll be reviewing the Auckland date on the Where You Been tour, as well, so if you’re a fan, I might see you there.
What Do We Do Now is released Friday, February 2nd.
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