Dinosaur Jr mastermind J Mascis’ lethargic vocals and sprawling rhythms predated slacker culture, and his 1987 album, You’re Living All Over Me, served as a vital influence for bands like the Lemonheads, Pavement and even Nirvana. But while many of his disciples went on to drown their sorrows in bottles of expensive champagne, Mascis has remained a fixture of the counterculture. Even when he tried to enter the mainstream with blatant pop songs such as “Out There” and “Feel the Pain,” his misanthropic demeanor, cracked and whiny voice, and overzealous guitar noodling kept him on the outside.
It seems that Mascis has finally realized that he’s right where he belongs. On his new album, Hand It Over, Mascis has stopped crafting what he thinks people want to hear and returned to following his own self-indulgent muse. The record doesn’t percolate with instantly catchy hooks or hum-along choruses. Instead, it echoes with static-drenched folk strumming, classic-rock cadences, drawling vocals and flailing solos that express both Mascis’ love for the guitar and his dissatisfaction with relationships.
Of course, those aren’t virgin themes for the virtuoso, but on Hand It Over, Mascis displays a musical enthusiasm and creativity he hasn’t shown in years. “Never Bought It” layers a flowing Mellotron over a delicate guitar arpeggio. “I’m Insane,” meanwhile, juxtaposes a whimsical trumpet lick with shuddering guitars and a strange single-note piano line. “Can’t We Move This,” for its part, features a string section battling an orchestra of guitar noise. On Hand It Over, Mascis has handed over some of the knob twiddling to My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, whose added pings, clanks and spaceship sounds give the record extra dimension.
Despite such levity, Dinosaur Jr continue to be mainly an outlet for Mascis to agonize over his inability to relate to women. The most revelatory track is “Alone,” an eight-minute lament that reflects the ghostly spirit of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.” Mascis’ strangulated guitar solos and self-pitying vocals are still a little overbearing at times. But Hand It Over remains an ambitious, uncompromising record that sets Dinosaur Jr back on the path to mainstream obscurity and alt-rock supremacy.