In interviews, J Mascis is infamously reticent, the sort of three-word-answer subject who can race through a litany of questions without admitting much of anything. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guarded. To the contrary, much of Mascis’s best music, both solo and with Dinosaur Jr., has often worked from a confessional core, even if the feelings come shrouded by shrieking electric guitars.
That quiet emotional candor provides the thread through Tied to a Star, the mostly acoustic follow-up to 2011′s sweet and approachable Several Shades of Why. “Feels have gotten me insecure,” he sings during the first verse of the opening track, his voice wavering over a twinkling riff; it’s the album’s thesis, a recapitulation of the same psychological unease that makes many of these 10 tunes intimate and alluring.
During “Wide Awake,” a gorgeous and reserved duet with Cat Power, his voice cracks in an insomniac fever as he pleads for a second chance, or at least the chance to figure out “what will bring you ’round.” He stares down at his shoes for “And Then” as if humming a hymn about loss, loneliness and confusion only to himself. He seeks solace in his sadness, while the modest arrangement of piano chords and casual strums spreads the feeling like a big, warm blanket. Mascis’s ease with his own existential discomfort is enough to make even the album’s frat-row strum-along “Every Morning” (think Cracker’s “Get Off With It,” covered by Portastatic) charming. “Every morning makes it hard on me,” he sings in the chorus, practically cheerful with angst. “Then it hits me this is the life I lead.”
Mascis misses here only when he veers too far from that midground of vulnerability and approachability, either by overstating his plaint or understating the song. He shoehorns a raga eruption into the otherwise brooding “Heal the Star,” picking fast, ferocious strings of high notes against heavy-handed tabla approximations. And his voice is so wispy during “Come Down” that it gets lost in the underlying electric drone and thin acoustic riff, no matter how slight they may be. He sounds like he’s slipped back into a dark corner, murmuring like the ghost of Skip Spence.
But those are exceptions on a record where J Mascis feels, strangely, like an old friend, sitting on a barstool and telling you about his troubles, just before the boisterous, late-night crowd begins to arrive. They’ll want to hear Dinosaur Jr., anyway.