In the Camelot of the 1990s alt-rock, J Mascis was a knight seated at King Cobain’s roundtable of grunge—alongside the likes of Corgan, Vedder and Cornell. However, as the kingdom waned, Mascis, the guitarist and frontman for the tinnitus-inducing Dinosaur Jr., wandered from the spotlight in search of his sonic grail. Now, this knight has returned.
The long brown locks that hung above so many mosh pits are now gray like Merlin’s. On Elastic Days, J. Mascis trades the broad blade of his Fender Jazzmaster and an army of Marshall stacks for a wistful acoustic guitar. Listening to the understated and nostalgia-tinged record is like spending the better part of an hour with an old rock star sitting on his porch, sipping beers and watching the world go by.
Like J Mascis’ 2014 album, Tied to a Star, Elastic Days eschews the chaos of Dinosaur Jr., instead delivering a record full of carefully crafted and understated ballads. His genius hasn’t waned; merely mellowed.
The appeal of Dinosaur Jr. stemmed from Mascis’ fusion of brash Stooges-like rock and a Morrissey-esque vulnerability. The juxtaposition provided a healthy dose of sentimentality in the whirlpool of chaotic noise. It made J Mascis a legendary songwriter who can wax romantically about both girls and guitar amps. On Elastic Days, the quieter tunes allow his songwriting to emerge from under discordant sheets of sound.
The album kicks off with “See You at the Movies,” setting a tone of brooding melancholia. While the placid acoustics might throw off Dinosaur Jr. fans, the voice is pure J Mascis. He manages to simultaneously sound snide, earnest and world-weary. The guitar solo almost (but not quite) feels like the tube-driven exuberance of old Dinosaur Jr. This new restraint lends these songs dynamic energy without taking from his songwriting craft.
The opening string section melody of “Web So Dense,” treads a more sober path. Tasty guitar tones weave with the wistful vocal melody as Mascis sings, “It all seems so strange.” Even without the discordant atonal guitar washes, the minor key vocal melodies have a heartfelt authenticity.
Very few evoke vague, yet palpable sadness like J Mascis. “The Sky Was All We Had” sports a “Here Comes the Sun”-sounding acoustic guitar intro that gives way to a solid drumbeat and Mascis singing, “Tell me I’m wasted.” While the screaming guitar solo lights up the song, it has more sepia-toned nostalgia than face-melting shredding.
On “Drop Me,” Mascis sounds particularly depressed—like a guy locked up in his room, processing a bad breakup and binging on junk food. When he sings “Hey now, it’s me, now let’s believe,” listeners will get the distinct impression he’s already given up hope. The song’s melancholia feels like an ex’s hoodie reminding you they got away—while still being the most comfortable item in your wardrobe.
“Cut Stranger” at times features the kind of upbeat dynamic flourishes that made Dinosaur Jr.’s amorphous textures infectious earworms. Still, the work is done with acoustic guitars and major chords rather than thick, overdriven power chords.
Fans of past mayhem will have to make themselves content with the album’s guitar solos, as Mascis only brings out the Big Muff pedal for these sections. The album’s closer, “Everything She Said,” takes one last look back, laying his’ vocals to rest on a bed of acoustic guitars and remorse.
J Mascis formed sound so unique with Dinosaur Jr. that it can be recognized just with a couple of notes. Elastic Days retains his iconic sound regardless of the lowered decibel level. Fans of his sound will enjoy this album, and it might even win over those who’d rather not have their ears ringing all the time.
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/songotaku.