The hollow pop of a cork pulled out of a bottle opens Dinosaur Jr’s new album, Without a Sound; what follows, however, reveals how Dino leader and songwriter J Mascis’ once-fierce guitar rock has lost some of its fizz. Without starts off promisingly with “Feel the Pain,” which surprises in its pleasantly jarring tempo changes and twinkling guitar hooks. “Feel the Pain” demonstrates how Dinosaur Jr at their best can make three chords played at deafening volume sound as stirring as Leonard Cohen. Yet the first line of the verse — “I feel the pain of everyone” — even if taken ironically, comes off as delusionally self-centered, foreshadowing problems that resonate throughout the album.
Other than Mike Johnson on bass and some backing vocals by Come’s Thalia Zedek, Mascis plays nearly all the instruments on Without. This approach gives the album the self-important feel of a vanity project rather than a dynamic group endeavor, saddling the songs with inertia. As with many indie rockers turned singer/songwriters, Mascis is strong on weak melodies, exemplified by the meandering acoustic limp of “Outta Hand” and the deathly drone of “Mind Glow.” Even less successful is the ersatz country gallop of “I Don’t Think So”; such mannered regressions into formula sound flat next to Mascis’ earlier sonic explorations, which rattled traditional song structure with blistering noise. Still, Without is not entirely without its gems — the wailing, infectious chorus of “Grab It” and the gut-wrenching thump of “Even You” hint at sparks of life.
Surprisingly, Without‘s refinement doesn’t sound like a sellout but rather a sincere attempt at artistic maturity. Unfortunately, the most interesting aspect about Dinosaur Jr was their immaturity: the way songs would unexpectedly stop and start their testosterone-driven tempos; how Mascis’ detached vocals hinted at the pain of emotional adolescence spelled out in his frantic, overdriven solos. Indeed, Without a Sound‘s biggest setback is Mascis’ restraint. Throughout the album, Mascis’ playing is unusually tasteful — and the worse for it. Coming from the man whose fervently expressive guitar attack made guitar solos sound cool again in the world of punk rock, Dinosaur Jr’s current material offends in its inoffensiveness.