It seems reasonable to assume that Dinosaur Jr. isn’t where most people turn for yearning love songs, but a wistful streak lurks beneath the guitar onslaught and pulverizing volume that have come to define the group since, well, about 30 seconds into the first song on their first album, all the way back in 1985. Nobody is saying the trio is prom-theme material, but Dinosaur Jr.’s lovelorn sensibility has figured to some degree in each of the group’s five albums since guitarist J Mascis reunited with original bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph in 2005.
Their latest, Sweep It Into Space, ranks among Dinosaur Jr.’s more vulnerable efforts, if such a description can apply to a band that has retained a remarkably consistent sludge-rock aesthetic over the past 35 years. In fact, Dinosaur Jr. build songs now much the way they always have, with blunt-force drums, thrumming, muscular basslines and superheated guitars turned up to the very edge of human endurance. What’s gotten sharper over the years are the melodies: Mascis has become a more tuneful songwriter, balancing noise with more nuance than he showed in the band’s early days.
That combination pays dividends for the band right from the start of Sweep It Into Space, another rugged outing with subtle variations on the usual musical themes. Opening song “I Ain’t” pairs overdriven fuzz-tone guitars with a plaintive vocal melody as Mascis confesses that he’s better when he’s not alone. Though squalling guitar cuts through the space between his vocals, it never fully breaks loose into the kind of rampant solo that Mascis sometimes lets rip. Don’t be alarmed: He’s all in elsewhere on Sweep It Into Space, spraying grit across the last third of the pummeling “Hide Another Round,” erupting into a torrent of trebly distortion on “I Expect It Always” and letting feedback build into a jagged, punchy middle-eight on “I Ran Away.” That last one features more layering than usual, with hard-strummed 12-string guitar at the top, courtesy of co-producer Kurt Vile, along with noodling licks that wander through the verses and dual harmonies punctuating Mascis’ vocals on the refrain. “Take It Back” is the big outlier here, opening with a bright, wholly uncharacteristic keyboard vamp that brings a new dimension to the band’s sound, even as seething guitar parts surge up around it.
Barlow contributes a pair of songs to the album, as per custom. He steers the band into moodier territory with a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic on the taut “Garden,” which opens with a laconic, understated arrangement of single-note guitar licks, bass and the hard slap of Murph’s drums, whirls into a gnashing refrain, and then recedes again. Barlow gets the last word, too, on album closer “You Wonder,” where he sings in dusty tones while Mascis lays way back on guitar, before a searing lead part comes blasting through the wall like an indie-rock Kool-Aid Man with a Big Muff distortion pedal.
“Take It Back” aside, Dinosaur Jr. tend to get by on a fairly limited sonic palette. Yet the trio continues to find compelling ways to fuse their core musical elements into songs that resonate, on albums that almost never misfire. Sweep It Into Space is merely the latest example.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.