The best of the post-millennial spate of '80s alt-rock reunions — Mission of Burma, the Pixies and now Dinosaur Jr. — all hail from Massachusetts. Now, the Bay State is a fine and rocking place, but those bands succeeded not because of geography but because they embody one of rock's eternal verities: it's all about chemistry. When a particular group of musicians makes an incredible sound that no other combination of people can quite duplicate, that's a great band. And it's why, 19 years after their last album together, the superlative Bug, Lou Barlow, J Mascis and Murph not only sound just like Dinosaur Jr, they sound great.
Mascis, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the band, is a notorious perfectionist — just listen to the masterly layered guitar arrangements here — and no way was this album going to suck. But what's surprising is the energy and even joy that courses through this record like intravenous java, powering addictive songs liberally slathered with the velvety huzz that only extreme amplification can provide. But anyone of Dinosaur's generation looking for some insight into life and love at the dawn of middle age won't find what they're looking for here — just as the music harks back to the band's halcyon days, the words also find Mascis mired in the same self-effacing goo as he was back when Bush 41 was president. Even the album cover is pure vintage SST. Then again, who cares? Beyond rocks like a see-saw in a nor'easter.
The drums are played very hard and impatiently, as if by a man late for a train, amplifier settings stand on the glowing orange precipice of meltdown, and the bass is a buzzing blur. Then there's Mascis 'voice: somewhere between a croon, a croak, and a yawn, submerged in the distorted swirl. In other words, it's just like old times. That may also make it sound dated, but by this point Dinosaur Jr is classic rock, and like the best bands, they've staked out a sound big enough to wander around in for quite a long time.
Opener "Almost Ready" is not just a rousng Sasquatch hootenanny, it's a wormhole straight to the spirit of '88; it seems like they included the cellphone ring right at the end (2:50) just to remind us what year it really is. It's vintage Dinosaur, not just for the "ear-bleeding country" sound that the band made into a groan heard 'round the world, but in Mascis 'forlorn drawl, forever declaring disorientation and inadequacy. Yes, even though you're in your 40s you can still not have the faintest clue.
But that's just the obligatory kick-start opener, the "Start Me Up" of Beyond — Mascis is savvy enough to save one of the best numbers for the second spot: "Crumble" steps into a swirling shoegazer bridge, with warping guitars pealing out gorgeous chords, just glorious, with Mascis typically throwing himself at the feet of his lover: "I got lost inside a lie," he whines. "With a smile you made it die." "Pick Me Up" mashes up Neil Young and Black Sabbath, a stark schematic of Dinosaur's component parts that gets obliterated by an utterly sublime passage as Mascis croons in duet with a wraith-like guitar melody that will make your hair stand on end, followed by a triumphal three-minute solo, like Leslie West fronting a pissed-off Crazy Horse. Three songs in, it's readily apparent that these guys are on fire, bashing out the songs with a gleeful disregard for finesse, stomping through the material like, well, like a dinosaur — and, whether impelled by pride or the promise of filthy lucre, hellbent on making some of the best music of their very elliptical career.
Barlow has had so much success with his band Sebadoh that he's kind of become the indie rock version of Paul McCartney, the guy who was in a band before Wings. But although Barlow has made a name for himself as a sensitive singer-songwriter type, he can also strap on a bass, put his head down and kick out the freakin 'jams. Sadly, perhaps revealingly, he's mixed quite low on the album — you can only really hear his bass on the songs he wrote. Barlow weighs in with "Back to Your Heart," a powerful, singalong, overamped folk dirge that packs nearly as much barely repressed rage as his other contribution, the foreboding "Lightning Bulb."
Another winner is "This Is All I Came to Do," wherein Mascis confesses "Look, I've nothing left/ It's downhill as you can tell," but the singalong chorus is a blaze of glory replete with heroic guitar filigrees — exactly the kind of emotional rollercoaster Mascis is croaking about. The similarly country-esque "We're Not Alone" shows a gentler side the old Dinosaur never could have tapped into; still, Mascis can't resist tearing off a lengthy, flashy solo. Same with the Velvetsy "I Got Lost," in which Murph drops the merciless bashing and plays a mantric tom-tom pattern while Mascis pines in a Neil-like falsetto; it's not the strongest song of the bunch but in the midst of the torrential downpour of distortion and volume all around it, it's affecting.
It's a wonder they didn't call the album Debaser — as ever, Mascis is forever begging forgiveness, declaring himself unworthy, lost and lonely, finding respite only in a lover's apparently bottomless indulgence. And as ever, the lyrics about troubled relationships could just as easily apply to the relationships within the band itself, adding an additional frisson of drama to the music. But as self-effacing as the lyrics are, the music is anything but: take, for instance, "It's Me" with its irresistibly swaggering, bad-ass riff and Tony Iommi-esque solo. Mascis is the last guitar hero — virtually every song has a lengthy six-string aria, Mascis slicing through the teeming changes with yet another wild, careening, and yet surely meticulously plotted solo. Like the best Dinosaur music, Beyond celebrates the link between self-doubt and self-indulgence, and in so doing, alchemizes angst into joy.
This line-up exploded in 1989, after the band's internecine warfare, a psychological bloodbath of post-adolescent neurosis, began to explode into actual physical violence. For a long time, those guys really, really couldn't stand each other. (Take it from me, I wrote the book). But Barlow, Mascis and Murph had the maturity to realize that that was a long time ago, when they were not yet fully formed. For whatever reasons, whether personal or financial, they buried the hatchet so they could once again make beautiful music together. Would that we could all do the same.