When Dinosaur Jr.’s original lineup of J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph was restored (after much fraught and remarked-upon time apart) and 2007’s Beyond was released, everyone who remembered the first three albums (Dinosaur, Bug, and You’re Living All Over Me) heaved a sigh of relief that blew the tall grass at the edges of the pastoral indie landscape. Here were the elders, returned to a world ready to remark upon them further and now in greater depth. The band members’ grievances acknowledged, though not wholly absolved, they seemed cautiously game for whatever was to come next.
Mascis was still the decider of Dinosaur Jr.’s velocity and trajectory. Seemingly intrinsic to the reunion, though, was a tacit acknowledgement that Barlow’s contributions to Dinosaur Jr. were substantive. For his part, perhaps with confidence bolstered by the success of both Sebadoh and Folk Implosion, Barlow returned as gracious and grateful a contributor as the lopsided circumstances would allow. Listeners were rewarded with a return to the dynamism that Mascis was unable to replicate in Barlow’s absence.
On the intervening albums, 2009’s Farm and 2012’s I Bet On Sky, came subtle, incremental shifts in balance. Barlow’s contributions, though still tightly regimented, came to feel like more participatory endeavors, less obligatory. His bass garnered greater prominence in the mix. Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not—produced by Mascis at his Bisquiteen studio in Amherst, Massachusetts, with John Agnello returning to mix—finds Dinosaur Jr. hitting its post-reunion stride. While every member’s offering might not carry equal weight, the members of Dinosaur Jr. who aren’t J Mascis have never had a greater say. For a band that has long allowed itself to be contextualized to the wider world by outside forces, such as clever merchandising and public celebrity rumination, it exhibits here the strongest sense of self-awareness to date: knowledge of what they have to offer and the conditions under which it may be given.
Strangest of all, and most emblematic of this fresh dynamic, is that the album’s strongest offering comes from Barlow. “Love is…” shows the band at its most cohesive, each member putting forth his best offering. Barlow’s emoting stands in stark contrast to the thudding utility of the driving bass hook. “Let it fall on you, let it pin you down, until you tell the truth” he sings. Murph, for his part, rides the line of function and flourish to propulsive results. At its apex, the song finds Barlow harmonizing with one of Mascis’ trademark solos, each finding precious voice in the moment’s earnestness
Unease has always been the axis on which Dinosaur Jr.’s world has spun. But making anxiety, however reliable, central to the endeavor makes for a wobbly orbit. The tension of Mascis and Barlow’s countervailing approaches to it are what gives the band the momentum that keeps it spinning. Mascis’ lyrics, whose cryptic narratives, told at a strange remove, rarely contain more characters than “I” and “you,” and Barlow’s, whose over-sharing belies fury and embarrassment in equal measure, both chronicle a worldview built on transgressions and trespasses. Whether it is Mascis picking scabs or Barlow poking bruises, they’re both plumbing the depths of every wound, now as ever, as if to test them for structural integrity and the potential for habitation.
In a perfect world, Dinosaur Jr. will delve ever deeper into the groove it’s been digging for the past three decades. The intimacy it reaches on Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not is as hard won as it’s ever been. The band approaches it from the obtuse angles only it can, arriving there because of its excessive volume, its unorthodox tempos, and its lyrical inscrutability, not in spite of it. To the uninitiated, it may seem formulaic, but it’s the self-imposed limitations that make Dinosaur Jr. so distinctive. The band’s most relatable quality is its difficulty at expression. Words don’t come easy. But when Mascis’ solo comes through, as it does with increasing reliability, it’s a triumph of communication, however fleeting.